Coral bleaching and climate change

A Pacific coral reef with many corals

A Pacific coral reef with many corals

The activities are as follows:

Corals are animals that build coral reefs. Coral reefs are home to many species of animals – fish, sharks, sea turtles, and anemones all use corals for habitat! Corals are white, but they look brown and green because certain types of algae live inside them. Algae, like plants, use the sun’s energy to make food. The algae that live inside the corals’ cells are tiny and produce more sugars than they themselves need. The extra sugars become food for the corals. At the same time, the corals provide the algae a safe home. The algae and corals coexist in a relationship where each partner benefits the other, called a mutualism: these species do better together than they would alone.

When the water gets too warm, the algae can no longer live inside corals, so they leave. The corals then turn from green to white, called coral bleaching. Climate change has been causing the Earth’s air and oceans to get warmer. With warmer oceans, coral bleaching is becoming more widespread. If the water stays too warm, bleached corals will die without their algae mutualists.

Scientist Carly working on a coral reef

Scientist Carly working on a coral reef

Carly is a scientist who wanted to study coral bleaching so she could help protect corals and coral reefs. One day, Carly observed an interesting pattern. Corals on one part of a reef were bleaching while corals on another part of the reef stayed healthy. She wondered, why some corals and their algae can still work together when the water is warm, while others cannot?

Ocean water that is closer to the shore (inshore) gets warmer than water that is further away (offshore). Perhaps corals and algae from inshore reefs have adapted to warm water. Carly wondered whether inshore corals are better able to work with their algae in warm water because they have adapted to these temperatures. If so, inshore corals and algae should bleach less often than offshore corals and algae. Carly designed an experiment to test this. She collected 15 corals from inshore and 15 from offshore reefs in the Florida Keys. She brought them into an aquarium lab for research. She cut each coral in half and put half of each coral into tanks with normal water and the other half into tanks with heaters. The normal water temperature was 27°C, which is a temperature that both inshore and offshore corals experience during the year. The warm water tanks were at 31°C, which is a temperature that inshore corals experience, but offshore corals have never previously experienced. Because of climate change, offshore corals may experience this warmer temperature in the future. After six weeks, she recorded the number of corals that bleached in each tank.

 Featured scientist: Carly Kenkel from The University of Texas at Austin

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.0

There are two scientific papers associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citations and PDFs of the papers are below. The lab webpage can be found here.

If your students are looking for more data on coral bleaching, check out HHMI BioInteractive’s classroom activity in which students use authentic data to assess the threat of coral bleaching around the world. Also, check out the two videos below!

  • Another BioInteractive video, appropriate for upper level high school classrooms. Visualizes the process of coral bleaching at different scales. Video includes lots of complex vocabulary about cells and the process of photosynthesis.

 

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Fertilizing biofuels may cause release of greenhouse gasses

An aerial view of the experiment at MSU where biofuels are grown

An aerial view of the experiment at MSU where biofuels are grown. Photo credit: K. Stepnitz, MSU

The activities are as follows:

Greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, like carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O), trap heat from the sun and warm the earth. We need some greenhouse gases to keep the planet warm enough for life. But today, the majority (97%) of scientists agree that the levels of greenhouse gases are getting dangerously high and are causing changes in our climate that may be hard for us to adjust to.

Scientist Leilei collecting samples of gasses released by the growing of biofuels

Scientist Leilei collecting samples of gasses released by the growing of biofuels. Photo credit: K. Stepnitz, MSU

When we burn fuels to heat and cool our homes or power our cars we release greenhouse gasses. Most of the energy used today comes from fossil fuels. These energy sources are called “fossil” fuels because they come from plants, algae, and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago! After they died, their tissues were buried and slowly turned into coal, oil, and natural gas. An important fact about fossil fuels is that when we use them, they release CO2 into our atmosphere that was stored millions of years ago. The release of this stored carbon is adding more and more greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, and much faster than today’s plants and algae can remove during photosynthesis. In order to reduce the effects of climate change, we need to change the way we use energy and think of new ways to power our world.

One potential solution could be to grow our fuel instead of drilling for it. Biofuels are a potential substitute for fossil fuels. Biofuels, like fossil fuels, are made from the tissues of plants. The big difference is that they are made from plants that are alive and growing today. Unlike fossil fuels that emit CO2, biofuel crops first remove CO2 from the atmosphere as the plants grow and photosynthesize. When biofuels are burned for fuel, the CO2 is emitted back into the atmosphere, balancing the total amount that was removed and released.

Scientists are interested in figuring out if biofuels make a good replacement for fossil fuels. It is still not clear if the plants that are used to produce biofuels are able to absorb enough CO2 to offset all of the greenhouse gases that are emitted when biofuels are produced. Additional greenhouse gases are emitted when producing biofuels because it takes energy to plant, water, and harvest the crops, as well as to convert them into fuel. In order to maximize plant growth, many biofuel crops are fertilized by adding nitrogen (N) fertilizer to the soil. However, if there is too much nitrogen in the soil for the crops to take up, it may instead be released into the atmosphere as the gas nitrous oxide (N2O). N2O is a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential nearly 300 times higher than CO2! Global warming potential is a relative measure of how much heat a greenhouse gas traps in the atmosphere.

Leilei is a scientist who researches whether biofuels make a good alternative to fossil fuels. He wondered what steps farmers could take to reduce the amount of N2O released when growing biofuel crops. Leilei designed an experiment to determine how much N2O is emitted when different amounts of nitrogen fertilizer are added to the soil. In other words, he wanted to know whether the amount of N2O that is emitted into the atmosphere is associated with how much fertilizer is added to the field. To test this idea, he looked at fields of switchgrass, a perennial grass native to North America. Switchgrass is one of the most promising biofuel crops. The fields of switchgrass were first planted in 2008 as a part of a very large long-term study at the Kellogg Biological Station in southwest Michigan. The researchers set up eight fertilization treatments (0, 28, 56, 84, 112, 140, 168, and 196 kg N ha−1) in four replicate fields of switchgrass, for a total of 32 research plots. Leilei measured how much N2O was released by the soil in the 32 research plots for many years. Here we have two years of Leilei’s data.

Featured scientist: Leilei Ruan from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.1

More information on LTER climate change research can be found hereInformation on the effects of climate change in Michigan can be found here.

Data associated with this Data Nugget can be found on the MSU LTER website data tables under GLBRC Biofuel Cropping System Experiment. Bioenergy research classroom materials can be found here. More images can be found on the LTER website.

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Fair traders or freeloaders?

Measuring chlorophyll content in the greenhouse

Measuring chlorophyll content in the greenhouse

The activities are as follows:

When two species do better when they cooperate than they would on their own, the relationship is called a mutualism. One example of a mutualism is the relationship between a type of bacteria, rhizobia, and legume plants. Legumes include plants like peas, beans, soybeans, and clover. Rhizobia live in bumps on the legume roots, where they trade their nitrogen for sugar from the plants. Rhizobia fix nitrogen from the air into a form that plants can use. This means that legumes that have rhizobia living in their roots can get more nitrogen than those that don’t.

Under some conditions, this mutualism can break down. For example, if one of the traded resources is very abundant in the environment. When the plant doesn’t need the nitrogen traded by rhizobia, it doesn’t trade as many sugars to the rhizobia. This could cause the rhizobia to evolve to be less cooperative as well. Less-cooperative rhizobia may be found where the soil already has lots of nitrogen. These less-cooperative bacteria are freeloaders: they fix less nitrogen, but still get sugars from the plant and other benefits of living in nodules on their roots.

Photo by Tomomi Suwa, 2013

Rhizobia nodules on plant roots. In exchange for carbon and protection in the nodules from plants, rhizobia provide fixed nitrogen for plants.

One very important legume crop species is the soybean. Soybeans are used to produce vegetable oil, tofu, soymilk, and many other food products. Soybeans trade with rhizobia for nitrogen, but often farmers add more nitrogen into the field as fertilizer. Since farms use a lot of nitrogen fertilizer, researchers at KBS were interested in how different types of farming affected the plant-rhizobia mutualism.

They grew soybean plants in a greenhouse and added rhizobia from three different farms: a high N farm, low N farm, and organic farm that used no N fertilizer. After four weeks, the researchers measured chlorophyll content of the soybean plants. Healthy plants that have lots of nitrogen will have high chlorophyll content, and plants with not enough nitrogen will have low chlorophyll content. Because high nitrogen could lead to the evolution of less-cooperative rhizobia, they expected that rhizobia from organic plots would be most cooperative. They predicted rhizobia from high N plots would be the least cooperative, and rhizobia from low N plots would fall somewhere in the middle. More-cooperative rhizobia provide more nitrogen, so the researchers expected plants grown with cooperative rhizobia to have higher chlorophyll content than plants receiving less-cooperative rhizobia.

Featured scientist: REU Jennifer Schmidt from the Kellogg Biological Station

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.1

For more information on the evolution of cheating rhizobia, check out these popular science articles:

If you are interested in performing your own classroom experiment using the plant-rhizobium mutualism, check out this paper published in the American Biology Teacher describing methods and a proposed experimental design: Suwa and Williamson 2014

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Do insects prefer local or foreign foods?

One of the invasive plants found in the experiment, Centaurea stoebe.

One of the invasive plants found in the experiment, Centaurea stoebe.

The activities are as follows:

Insects that feed on plants, called herbivores, can have big effects on how plants grow. Herbivory can change the size and shape of plants, the number of flowers and seeds, and even which plant species can survive in a habitat. A plant with leaves eaten by insect herbivores will likely do worse than a plant that is not eaten.

Plants that naturally grow in an area without human interference are called native plants. When a plant is moved by humans to a new area and lives and grows outside of its natural range, it is called an exotic plant. Sometimes exotic plants become invasive, meaning they grow large and fast, take over habitats, and push out native species. What determines if an exotic species will become invasive? Scientists are very interested in this question. Understanding what makes a species become invasive could help control invasions already underway and prevent new ones in the future.

Because herbivory affects how big and fast a plant can grow, local herbivores may determine if an exotic plant thrives in its new habitat and becomes invasive. Elizabeth, a plant biologist, is fascinated by invasive species and wanted to know why they are able to grow bigger and faster than native and other exotic species. One possibility, she thought, is that invasive species are not recognized by the local insect herbivores as good food sources and thus get less damage from the insects. Escaping herbivory could allow invasive species to grow more and may explain how they become invasive.

To test this hypothesis, Elizabeth planted 25 native, 25 exotic, and 11 invasive species in a field in Michigan. This field was already full of many plants and had many insect herbivores. The experimental plants grew from 2011 to 2013. Each year, Elizabeth measured herbivory on 10 individuals of each of the 61 species, for a total of 610 plants. To measure herbivory, she looked at the leaves on each plant and determined how much of each leaf was eaten by herbivores. She then compared the area that was eaten to the total area of the leaf and calculated the proportion leaf area eaten by herbivores. Elizabeth predicted that invasive species would have a lower proportion of leaf area eaten compared to native and noninvasive exotic plants.

ERHpics

Featured scientist: Elizabeth Schultheis from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.9

There is one scientific paper associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citation and PDF of the paper is below, as well as a link to access the full dataset from the study:

For two lesson plans covering the Enemy Release Hypothesis, click here and here. For another great paper discussing the Enemy Release Hypothesis, click here.

Aerial view of the experiments discussed in this activity:

ERH Field site 2

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