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Minnesota Sea Grant Awards $566,650 for Aquatic Research

March 1, 2005

The University of Minnesota Sea Grant Program recently chose eight research projects involving Lake Superior and the Great Lakes for funding. The award money, which is provided by the National Sea Grant College Program and matched by the University of Minnesota, collectively totals $566,650. The following projects that focus on coastal communities and economies, ecosystems and habitats, fisheries and biotechnology will be funded through University of Minnesota departments for 2005-2007:

Pinpointing Sources of Bacteria that Contribute to Beach Closures

Personnel: Randall Hicks and Michael Sadowsky, University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) Department of Biology

Lake Superior beach closures have been causing concern since the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Lake Superior Beach Monitoring program began in 2003. This project builds on previous Sea Grant research by increasing the size and scope of a DNA fingerprint database for E. (Escherichia) coli, which may be causing the water quality problems. Researchers plan to collect E. coli from the Duluth-Superior Harbor during spring, summer, and fall. By conducting genetic fingerprinting analyses on the E. coli samples, they hope to gain a better understanding of beach contamination sources and seasonal variations. They will compare contamination sources between open water, nearshore sediments, and effluent from the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District to identify similarities in contamination patterns. Results will contribute to public policy decisions.

Understanding the Links Between Lake Superior’s Animal Life, Upwellings, and Temperature

Personnel: Donn Branstrator, Thomas Hrabik, and Brian May, UMD Department of Biology

This project seeks to increase our understanding of how Lake Superior’s physical and biological processes interact. Researchers hope to determine what mechanisms control biological productivity in the lake, and answer basic questions that have confounded scientists and resource managers for years. They will examine how the lake’s physical properties such as temperature and currents, impact animal life (zooplankton and fish) and establish whether productivity is higher in cold eddies or warm eddies. Ocean research suggests that nutrients delivered by offshore upwellings drive productivity; whether upwelling rates in Lake Superior are enough to enhance biological productivity will be addressed.

A Step Towards Defining the Carbon Cycle in Lake Superior

Personnel: Erik Brown and Brian May, UMD Large Lakes Observatory

Does Lake Superior absorb carbon dioxide or emit it into the atmosphere (is it a sink or a source)? We don’t know. To find out, researchers plan to moor instruments in Western Lake Superior to measure seasonal variability in thermal structure and the distribution of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The results will help them develop and test a mathematical model for predicting annual temperature and gas cycles. Researchers will also evaluate what kind of carbon cycling happens in the lake through their observations and the model’s predictions. Understanding the carbon cycle will help us better determine the lake’s response to climate change and external factors.

Developing More Efficient Monitoring Methods for Rocky Coasts

Personnel: Valerie Brady and Lucinda Johnson, UMD Natural Resources Research Institute

Researchers will develop a more cost-effective method for monitoring the macroinvertebrate communities (spineless insects, worms, etc.) living on rocky surfaces in Lake Superior by using artificial substrates (baskets of cobble). The researchers will compare this sampling method to more traditional methods, and will refine their method to assess aquatic invertebrate community responses to shoreland development at seven sites along Minnesota shoreline. Traditional monitoring methods involve taking grab samples of sediment, which does not work on the hard surfaces that make up more than half of Lake Superior’s nearshore areas. Researchers will use the data to establish benchmarks of environmental conditions for Minnesota’s Lake Superior rocky shores.

Investigating the Relationship Between Dissolved Phosphorus and Oxygen Released by Sunlight in Lake Superior

Personnel: James Cotner and Kristopher McNeill, University of Minnesota (UM) Twin Cities, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior

When sunlight hits surface water, particular forms of oxygen are released from chemical bondage. A microbial ecologist and a chemist will explore the relationship between these oxygen forms and the availability of phosphorus to organisms living in Lake Superior. Their research will generate the first Great Lakes measurements of “reactive oxygen species” (such as singlet oxygen and hydrogen peroxide) that are produced when ultraviolet wavelengths interact with organic matter in the water. The researchers will determine the ability of these oxygen species to fragment organisms’ RNA and DNA, which can be abundant sources of phosphorus in aquatic systems. The specific effect of reactive oxygens on the breakdown and availability of dissolved organic phosphorous is unknown. However, these reactions could be influenced by global change, affect carbon balances, and contribute to lake eutrophication.

Defining Potential Effects of Endocrine Disrupters in Wastewater on Female Fish and Fish Populations

Personnel: Peter Sorensen, UM Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology

Building on their work concerning the effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) on fish, researchers will tackle three questions. First, they will determine if female fathead minnows suffer reproductive abnormalities when exposed to wastewater effluent containing EDCs. Second, they will attempt to link female-specific reactions to particular estrogens or androgens in the wastewater. Third, they will determine if EDCs might reduce the viability of populations by disrupting gene flow. The effluent from many Great Lakes sewage treatment plants and paper mills contains EDCs. Such wastewater lowers the reproductive potential of male fish in the laboratory. This project will be one of the first to address how EDCs in effluent might affect fish at the population level.

Calculating Biomass and Energy Flow from Plankton to Lake Superior’s Top Predators

Personnel: Thomas Hrabik, UMD Department of Biology

Researchers plan to estimate phytoplankton, zooplankton, and fish biomass as a function of the organism’s body size in three regions of Lake Superior. They will compare predator demand and prey supply among these areas by calculating the relative rates of energy transfer up the food chains. Of the three locations, researchers speculate that biological production will be greatest near the Duluth-Superior Harbor but that the rate of energy flow will be most efficient northeast of the Apostle Islands where there are fewer nutrients, but also fewer invasive species and anglers. A portion of Minnesota’s North Shore will also be investigated through a combination of fieldwork and remote sensing. Results will aid efforts to manage Lake Superior fisheries.

A New Approach for Identifying Environmental Estrogens in Great Lakes Estuaries

Personnel: Deborah Swackhamer, UM Division of Environmental Health Sciences

Estrogens and estrogen-mimics accumulate in aquatic environments though wastewater effluents, pesticides, detergents and other common trappings of human activity. Researchers plan to create a new way to capture estrogen-like compounds from water samples using resin composed of tiny glass beads coated with cloned estrogen receptors. This resin will bind with a broader variety of estrogen mimics and will be more economical to use than current methods for quantifying environmental estrogens. After perfecting the estrogen extraction process, the researchers will analyze water from five estuaries around the Great Lakes, including the Duluth-Superior Harbor. Hormone imbalances created by environmental estrogens can harm reproductive and immune systems and lead to deformities and sterilization in animals.

Minnesota Sea Grant is part of a network of 30 Sea Grant College Programs spanning coastal states throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.

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