Alumni Outlook Magazine

Could it be a New Species?

Could it be New Species?
Zajack and Berkebile collect samples to be taken back to UW-Stout’s labs for further studying.
The question “What did you do this summer?” took on a new meaning for two UW-Stout students.

Students Heidi Zajack and Jeff Berkebile traveled this summer with Steve Nold, associate professor of biology, to the Great Lakes. The trio collected samples of purple bacteria living in sinkholes in Lake Huron.

The sinkholes were discovered in 2002 during a shipwreck exploration cruise. Such sinkholes also could be present in the other Great Lakes. To date, there has been no systematic study of the submerged groundwater vents, so little is known about them.

Since saltwater sinkholes have been a fruitful habitat for discovering novel species, Nold believes the freshwater sinkholes offer similar opportunities for discovery. “The bacteria look just like the ones that grow in the ocean,” Nold says, “but they’ve never been studied.”

From aboard a research vessel, the group explored the underwater sinkholes and collected water and sediment samples from the National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve of Thunder Bay. An underwater remote-operated vehicle—similar to one used in studying the Titanic—and scuba divers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration supported the efforts. “It was a memorable trip, and one that broadened the students’ scientific horizons,” Nold says. But the trip was only the first step in this preliminary research.

The samples collected from the summer expedition became part of a National Science Foundation-funded project in the fall. Back on campus, the samples are being studied in an introductory biology class. Zajack and Berkebile are working with first-year students to process the samples and generate data. They are extracting the DNA from the samples and comparing it to known saltwater organisms. The students will determine if the bacteria represent new species or if they are the same as saltwater organisms.

“If all goes as planned, we’ll be sitting on a pile of data that will be written into a peer-reviewed publication,” Nold says.