Changes in Marine Biological Sciences
The Environmental Biophysics and Molecular Ecology Program at Rutgers University focuses on developing novel tools and techniques to understand how marine organisms acclimate to their environment. We have invented novel biophysical technologies that allow us to precisely measure how efficiently photosynthetic organisms, including phytoplankton, symbiotic corals, seaweeds and benthic plants utilize solar energy for their growth. These techniques are coupled with satellite observations of ocean color. Indeed, we developed the “gold standard” used by NASA for retrieving analyses of global ocean photosynthetic rates. We further use molecular biological tools to understand the mechanisms of acclimation of organisms to light, temperature and nutrients. Our program is unique in marine sciences and has been extraordinarily successful in revealing the ability of marine organisms to adapt to changes in the environment.
These techniques and approaches developed in the EBME program have radically changed our notions about diversity and activity of marine organisms, and have been invaluable in elucidating evolutionary trees and the origins of biogeochemical cycles. However, the application of similar techniques to primary production, nitrogen fixation, and other rate determining processes in aquatic as well as terrestrial ecosystems has lagged. The EBME program provides a laboratory in Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University that addresses these issues.
Importance of Interdisciplinary Communication
Graduate research and training on photosynthesis and primary production in aquatic ecosystems are largely based on radiocarbon uptake processes and “bio-optics”, a subdiscipline of optics that examines relationships between inherent and apparent optical properties of microscopic and macroscopic particulate matter in aquatic ecosystems. There is a parallel field of “photosynthesis research”, containing an eclectic mix of disciplines including physics, physical chemistry, biophysics, biochemistry, molecular biology, plant physiology, ecology, and geochemistry. The latter field has its own disciplinary literature, including a journal of the same name (i.e., Photosynthesis Research) as well as Biochimica Biophysica Acta (Bioenergetics), J. Biol. Chem., Biophys. J., Planta, Plant Physiol; etc. With very few exceptions, researchers in aquatic sciences working on primary production (i.e. photosynthesis), rarely interact with researchers in “photosynthesis research” and vice versa.
This intellectual schism has prevented the elucidation of fundamental phenomena documented in the aquatic sciences literature from being correctly interpreted, while simultaneously, researchers in photosynthesis have largely ignored the unparalleled genetic diversity afforded by aquatic photoautotrophs in the development of their own “paradigms”. The lack of interdisciplinary communication has certainly impeded progress in understanding fundamental processes in aquatic systems, and arguably has led to a narrow perspective of photosynthetic processes amongst researchers in that area.
The E.B.M.E. Approach to Education and Research
One of the major reasons for the paucity in interdisciplinary communication and collaboration can be traced to the heritage of the disciplines. Aquatic scientists usually come from backgrounds in ecology or some field of physics and have little formal training in fundamental biophysical processes or the molecular biology related to photosynthesis. Over the past two decades, we have striven to bridge these gaps. Nonetheless, with the rapid development of sophisticated techniques, based on measurements of variable fluorescence, photoacoustics, specific diagnostic proteins, and high resolution oxygen changes, we feel that it is imperative that educational institutions develop and foster the research and teaching programs required to provide the training and experimental opportunities to apply such techniques in the environmental sciences, together with the resident expertise to help train the next generation of instrumentation designers and researchers.
The research, education, and training activity within the EBME program requires a significant investment in instrumentation infrastructure. Instrumentation development emphasizes biophysical applications in the environmental sciences, where the most recent developments in technology (electronics, optics, computers) are used to develop prototype instruments for research and training. Utilizing the unique aspects of EBME interdisciplinary environment, a vigorous instrumentation program has been developed that has led to the commercialization of novel biophysical instrumentation for the aquatic sciences community, as well as to the training of instrumentation engineers for the marine and environmental sciences.