ASU oceanographer featured on television program

Most people wouldn’t expect to find an oceanographer in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, but ASU professor Susanne Neuer was featured on Cox 7 Arizona’s “STEM Journals” to discuss how studying Arizona rivers can help understand oceans.

Neuer, who runs the marine biology laboratory at ASU’s School of Life Science, discussed the role of phytoplankton in Arizona rivers. The Neuer Lab at ASU has conducted research on phytoplankton in the Salt River system, which has properties similar to the ocean.

“There are thousands of microscopic algae in the face of a thimble,” she said.

Neuer’s research mainly focuses on water-related areas such as the biology of plankton organisms in a changing ocean, the quantification of carbon export in subtropical oceans and the adaptation of sea ice organisms living enclosed in the brine channels of sea ice.

Neuer said her lab is running a research study in the Sargasso Sea right now and has also been producing satellite derived estimates of algal biomass for several lakes in central Arizona.

Neuer said half the oxygen made in the earth’s atmosphere was produced from phytoplankton.

“But a large portion is removed from the atmosphere by tiny organisms most people know nothing about,” she said.

Phytoplankton are free-floating aquatic plants such as algae and cyanobacteria. They are microscopic algae that take on the role as the basis of the entire food web in the ocean.

Phytoplankton are like the grass of the sea. They can be found in almost any body of water that is exposed to sunlight. When they photosynthesize, they turn carbon dioxide into sugar and simultaneously produce oxygen.

Nuer said the majority of algae is good and is the basis for the food web, but some algae can be toxic to fish and some of them can actually make water taste bad.

“Before people drink, the water it is filtered out in a water treatment plant,” she said.

Neuer said her lab collects algae and takes it back to look a microscopic life. They can see a tiny microcosm with a microscope.

“We will see algae filaments and zooplankton, which are tiny animals, like insects or fish larvae that live in the sediment of the river,” she said.

Unlike plants, algae is difficult to differentiate so the lab extracts the DNA out of the algae to tell them apart.

Biological science junior Logan Monks was asked to work some the machines for the show. He joined Neuer’s lab in 2012.

“I am working on a study to determine the effects of the addition of clay on aggregation of the marine cyanobacterium synechococcus,” he said. “This study is considered a model for the carbon flux in early oceans that was critical to the formation of the oxygenated atmosphere.”

Research technician Demetra Hamill said she started working for the Neuer Lab in the summer of 2012. She was also featured in the television segment.

“It was kind of awkward having them film us,” she said. “It made me nervous, because there were so many cameras, but it ended up looking good on the show though, since the scenes were only five seconds long.”

 

Reach the reporter at kgrega@asu.edu or follow her on twitter @kelciegrega