WWU’s Shannon Point Marine Center receives $558,000 NSF grant
Kathy Van Alstyne, a marine scientist at Western Washington University’s Shannon Point Marine Center, has received a four-year $558,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the ways in which the naturally-produced chemicals made by marine seaweeds alter the chemistry of other plant species and the behavior of animals that prey on them.
The research has implications to the development and persistence of sea lettuce blooms that have been affecting coastal areas, including beaches and shellfish beds in the Pacific Northwest.
Van Alstyne’s research has focused on the chemical ecology of green tides, large blooms of seaweeds that occur in many parts of the Puget Sound and Northwest Straits regions of Washington state.
According to Van Alstyne, the unique feature of her current research is that it encompasses the role of airborne “infochemicals” that are released by marine seaweeds at low tide.
The chemicals produced by the seaweeds can serve as agents for disseminating information among intertidal life, affecting both predator-prey interactions and seaweed growth. Most previous studies of chemical signaling by marine plants and animals have been limited to chemicals that are released underwater.
Airborne chemical signals may be particularly important since the signaling chemicals tend to be released when the seaweeds are being consumed by predators or are experiencing adverse environmental conditions. Exposure to adverse conditions at low tide is a proven mechanism for release of signaling chemicals such as dimethyl sulfide, one of the chemicals of interest in these studies. Van Alstyne noted that in addition to affecting predator-prey relationships, the release of DMS can influence the global sulfur cycle and climate.
Experiments in these studies will be carried out at laboratories at the marine center and will involve undergraduate students. Funds from the grant will be used to train students to conduct experimental research in marine environments and sophisticated state-of-the-art chemical analyses. Information about the research will also be disseminated to public audiences through the Shannon Point Public Education Initiative.