Home Institution: University of Maryland, Department of Zoology
Matt is a recipient of a Curtis & Edith Munson Foundation award for coral reef research as well as a graduate intern at BBSR.
I first came to Bermuda as an undergraduate student over 6 years ago and decided that I liked research so much that I went on to graduate school to study the ecology of coral reefs with Dr. Ken Sebens. We have traveled to Jamaica and Belize for our research as well lived underwater for a month in the Habitat off Florida. I have been in Bermuda several times to work with Dr. Fred Lipschultz studying how corals deal with all of the particles that fall out of the water on them. These particles are bits of sand and dead stuff stirred up off the bottom by the currents that continuously falls on them in a fine (or during a storm, not so fine) coating.
Once the particles land on the corals, the corals have two choices; either get rid of the particles, since they are mostly little 'rocks' or to "eat" them first and then get rid of them. In contrast to most scientists, I think that many corals do the latter! What use could such particles be to the corals? The particles are usually covered with bacteria and other organic matter that has a high nutritional value because of the content. Getting enough nitrogen is as important for corals as for any animals, (that's why Mom is always worried that you get enough protein!). In addition, to move the particles off their surface, the corals wrap them in mucus which would be silly to throw away. They they digest the mucus and particles in their guts and therefore receive nutrients and energy while concentrating the particles before finally ejecting them.
So, what I do is try and figure out if corals do get nutrition from the particles. I need some way to label or "tag" the nitrogen on the particles so that if the corals remove it and use it, the labeled nitrogen will appear in their bodies. Each element in the periodic table can have several different forms, or isotopes, which are named according to their atomic weight. Since I'm working on nitrogen, the two important isotopes are normal nitrogen (14N) and a heavier stable isotope (15N) which is not very abundant in nature (only 0.37% of all of the atoms in the world are 15N). So if we add more 15N than naturally occurs to the food, we can "see" the different parts of the animal become heavier. We don't actually measure the change in weight using a scale or balance but use a special machine called an isotope ratio mass spectrometer (That's one in the picture of me at the top of the page) can be used to measure how much of each isotope is in any given sample. By following the fate of the 15N label you can figure out what happens to normal nitrogen in the system you're working with.
I catch some particles using a sediment trap placed on the reef and then expose the particles to 15N as ammonium (NH4+) so that the bacteria can incorporate it into their bodies. Then after washing the particles really well, I "feed" it to corals in special chambers like this one. The coral is removed from the reef with a hole saw to make uniform pieces (try clicking on them in the figure) and set in the chamber where the pump (the red thing at the bottom right) gently moves the water with particles and keeps the particles suspended so that they can settle onto the coral surface in a natural manner.
After exposing the corals to the particles, the pieces are removed and prepared for analysis on the mass spectrometer. I have to be very careful to measure other ways that the 15N can get into the coral, especially from any NH4+ released directly from the particles into the water and then taken up by the animal. I don't want to confuse nitrogen from NH4+ with that from the particles. I am still working on this research and will post some of my results after I return from getting married! You can e-mail me if you have any questions.