Bees, Biofuels and Blennies: A Glimpse of Ecological Research at UCSD

Understanding the human psyche is already an enormously complicated task: imagine trying to understand the behaviors of the vast numbers of animals and plants also on our planet. This is the daunting task faced by UCSD’s undergraduate ecological researchers, who spend countless hours in the lab trying to understand different facets of Mother Nature.

 by Jacky Lu and Mitchell Zhao | staff writers | UTS Vol. 3 (2012-2013)

Annika Nabors of the Nieh Lab explored an aspect of the enormously complex pollination behaviors of bees. Garfield Kwan of the Shurin Lab sought to maximize the quantity and survivability of biofuel product from algae by growing several different varieties of algae together. Finally, Elizabeth Miller of the Hastings Lab investigated the thin line of separation between different species of triplefin blenny fishes.

A Guide for Pollinators

It is not surprising to learn that bees are the most prolific pollinators in the world, pollinating more than any other organism. They have a symbiotic relationship with flowers, collecting pollen on different parts of their bodies and transferring this pollen to other flowers. These pollinated flowers often display intricate patterns, such as thin lines pointing towards the center of the flower, to indicate the location of its pollen.

Illustration by Neha Ahmed

Illustration by Neha Ahmed

Annika Nabors asked whether the patterns, called nectar guides, are simply a case of form following function where the design on a petal points inward just because of the shape of the petal or whether the nectar guides actually have a functional purpose in guiding the bees towards a source of nectar. She performed an experiment to test the functions of nectar guides and their foraging effects on the bumblebee species, Bombus impatiens.

“Bees are very important to agriculture. Understanding how and why they forage on different things and at what speeds they go helps us to better control our agriculture and pollinate things with bees,” says Annika.

Because real flowers could not be scientifically controlled and would introduce variables such as odor that could distort the experiment, Annika designed artificial flowers to use in her experiment. Each artificial flower consisted of a rectangular plastic block with a sky blue circle inside of a forest green square pattern with a white plus sign to represent the nectar guide.

To perform her experiment, Annika made two types of artificial flowers: one with an accurate nectar guide where the sugar would be placed in the nectar guide and another with an inaccurate nectar guide where the sugar would be placed in a different location than the nectar guide.

She timed how long the bees would forage for the sugar on the plastic flowers, performing over 500 individual trials with both the accurate and the inaccurate nectar guide. Then, Annika compared the foraging time for bees on flowers with accurate nectar guides to the foraging time for bees on flowers with misleading nectar guides.

Picture 27Annika’s results so far support the hypothesis that pollen guides play an important role in pollination.  Bees spent less time foraging on flowers with accurate nectar guides, so she concluded that nectar guides are not merely aesthetically pleasing, but also have a functional purpose. Her research on pollination has a significant impact on the agricultural industry.

Algae as Energy

Another topic explored by UCSD undergraduate ecological researchers is alternative energy sources.  As fossil fuel reserves run low, viable alternatives for fuel sources such as biofuel are becoming more and more important.

Garfield Kwan examined the production of algal biofuel. To become a more feasible alternative to fossil fuels, biofuel must be produced efficiently. The old method, where companies simply grew vats of one species of algae to produce biofuel, was highly impractical because the algae were extremely vulnerable to invasive species and disease. Contaminated cultures would be tossed out, wasting both time and money and severely limiting the successful adaptation of algal biofuel as an alternative energy source.

For his research project, Garfield studied the viability of algal biofuel produced by several different species of algae as compared to the viability of biofuel made by only one species. The groups of algal biofuel that he used contained anywhere from one species to ten different species of algae. For each group, Garfield tested how the vats of algae reacted to herbivores, a variation in food amounts, and different amounts of lighting. Then, he measured the amount of biofuel product that came out of each sample.

Garfield discovered a complex relationship between the number of algae species and the amount of biofuel output.  For two or three species of algae, productivity of biofuel and overall survivability of the algae increased. Surprisingly however, the sample with ten species of algae suffered major losses and most of the algae died. On average, however, when there is more than one species of algae present and less than ten species of algae present, biofuel will not only be produced in larger quantities, but also resist predation better. Algal biofuel companies can use this information to improve upon their techniques and produce higher amounts of biofuel, thus making it cheaper and more practical for purchase and eventual use. According to Garfield, “I can’t predict anything, but I would hope we will [start using biofuels] in our lifetime. I would hope to see that we don’t run out of fossil fuels and then use biofuels.”

Fishing in the Past

Knowledge about the evolutionary past of animals helps scientists understand how and why different organisms evolved to fill specific niches in their environment. Elizabeth Miller studied deceased and preserved fish at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.  Her research confirmed the speciation of three entirely new species of triplefin blenny fishes, a type of fish that lives near the bottom of the ocean.

Elizabeth spent many hours in her lab characterizing the three new species of triplefin blennies by their morphological characteristics, specifically working with ones that live off the Pacific coast of Mexico. Every one of the fishes’ scales had to be meticulously counted and categorized into 4 or 5 different categories under the eye of the microscope.  In addition, Elizabeth used an x-ray to count the number of fin rays and vertebrae bones in each fish specimen. These details are very important in classifying the different species of triplefin blennies, as they help in mapping out a phylogenetic tree. This phylogenetic tree will use the different morphological characteristics, such as bone structure, to identify which fish species are evolutionarily older than other species and which species are more closely related to each other.

Picture 28

One of Elizabeth’s proposed causes for speciation is geographic isolation. The Baja California area is rich in geologic history, having withstood the shifting of tectonic plates along the San Andreas Fault.  These events have broken up peninsulas and created new aquatic environments, promoting geologic

al separation and thus creating circumstances for entirely new species to evolve through geographical isolation.

“[My research] … helps us understand both the geologic history of [Baja California] and the evolutionary history of the fishes in that region, which I think is important and contributes to our understanding of marine evolution in general,” says Elizabeth.

Biological research deals with widespread topics not only about the human body, but also about the environment in which we live in. Annika, Garfield, and Elizabeth have explored the bees that pollinate our crops, the algae that can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and the fish that can provide a window into geological history. We are adding to our understanding of the world we live in, one research project at a time.