A look at the year in scientific research around Santa Cruz
From the faraway icy surface of Pluto to the depths of Antarctica’s frozen tundra, Santa Cruz scientists had their fingerprints all over this year’s most interesting findings. There were possible breakthroughs at UCSC in the search for an AIDS vaccine and better ways to test for Ebola, and important research into bat fungi and the sounds of elephant seals. Here are five key takeaways from Santa Cruz’s year in science.
1. Mercurial Findings
For over a decade now, health-conscious people worried about mercury have known what they could do to minimize their risk of getting contaminated—namely, reduce servings of certain kinds of fish, like tuna. But in the past year, scientists have discovered that methylmercury, the element in its toxic form, might be closer to us than we ever thought before.1.
First came reports from UCSC researchers like Peter Weiss-Penzias, an atmospheric chemist, that the elemental compound consistently shows up in fog. Next was the revelation from UCSC biologists that methylmercury was showing up in the molted top-layer fur of elephant seals. Researchers estimate that each individual seal sheds about half a pound of methylmercury each year.
More alarming yet was a report this month from the Puma Project on campus, which has been consistently testing and finding mercury in the whiskers of pumas in the Santa Cruz Mountains. More than one-third of Santa Cruz-area mountain lions had mercury levels above the human-health threshold, and fog seems to be the culprit, as it disrupts the food chain. Experts also found higher-than-expected mercury levels in pine needles and some spiders. Generally speaking, mercury is a toxin that can cause problems for children and pregnant women, even stopping brain growth in fetuses. It’s too early to say, though, if and how mercury is affecting the animals that the researchers are testing.
2. Plastic Fantastic
Jim “Homer” Holm, executive director for Clean Oceans International in Santa Cruz, has long been a supporter of cleaning up the Pacific and getting plastics out of the sea. This past October, his group paid to bring the prototype of a plastic-to-fuel machine to Cabrillo College for a demonstration and give some sharp college kids the opportunity to test it out themselves. Weighing in at 500 pounds, the PTF 100, which was built in Michigan, can turn small pieces of plastic into valuable fuel. “What’s in it for me?” Holm told the Santa Cruz Sentinel. “Clean oceans are in it for me.”
3. Toxins in Bloom
UCSC scientists were warning about the massive toxic algae bloom coming to the West Coast back in early June. It has all been part of the the trending warmer El Niño waters in the past year that has venomous, tropical sea snakes washing ashore in Huntington Beach and young sea lion pups starving. On top of that, local biologists announced this month that domoic acid, an algal toxin, is leaving some sea lions brain damaged, with impaired spatial memory. That deficit, biologists say, would probably make it harder for the sea mammals to find food and avoid getting lost at sea.
4. Map Making
One of the most exciting things happening up on the hill is not necessarily a discovery that happened this year—but rather a series of developments that might lead to something over the next several years. Over the past decade and a half, UCSC researchers have done pioneering work mapping the human genome to better understand the blueprints our bodies are built with.
But like people, all genomes are different, creating an overwhelming body of information—each human genome has over 3 billion base pairs. This past year, the UCSC Genomics Institute received a $1 million grant from the Simons Foundation, a charitable group supporting research, to map this genetic variation to get a better sense of what different individuals have and don’t have in common, and where that variation is. This past September, the institute announced a partnership with Microsoft that will allow for faster calculations. It also received a couple of big grants, including $2 million from the Keck Foundation.
5. Light Fixture
UCSC’s astronomy department is regarded as one of the nation’s best, and this year astronomer Francis Nimmo was part of a mission to send the first-ever satellite 3 billion miles to Pluto, while Professor Garth Illingworth was part of a project that examined light from billions of years ago.
Illingworth has long been an expert in the early days of the universe. Using the Hubble Telescope, he has studied light that is 13 billion years old and looked at galaxies in the early days of the universe, literally peering across space and time. This year, he teamed up with Yale University astronomers to look at 13-billion-year-old light from the 10-meter telescope at University of California’s Keck Observatory in Hawaii. Combined with images from Hubble and the Spitzer Telescope, these new images reveal secrets of the universe’s toddler years. “One of the most dramatic discoveries from Hubble and Spitzer in recent years is the unexpected number of these very bright galaxies at early times close to when the first galaxies formed,” Illingworth said in May. “We still don’t fully understand what they are and how they relate to the very numerous fainter galaxies.”
UPWARD-FACING SEAL It was a big year at UCSC for elephant seals. Some researchers learned about the sea mammals’ ability to recognize the bark of their rivals, while others made troubling discoveries about mercury in their skin. PHOTO: CLAYTON ANDERSON, NMFS 19108