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Students present osmolyte research at international conference

When deep-sea biologists from around the world
gathered for a symposium in Brest, France, this fall, three Whitman College students took a break from classes to share their own cutting-edge research findings.

Accompanied by biology professor Paul Yancey, Whitman students Jeanette Fiess, Hilary Hudson, and Jennifer Hom were the only undergraduates presenting at the symposium, which focused on deep-sea hydrothermal vent biology. They reported on a research project that began last April with an expedition to collect deep-sea creatures off the coast of northern California.

Fiess, a senior biology major from Bainbridge Island, Washington, and Hudson, a junior from Tacoma, Washington, were two of the students who sailed with Yancey on that trip led by scientists and researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Yancey and his students played an active role as the Oceanic Explorer, a robotic submersible, was used to collect creatures from a depth of 1,700 feet.

“We were fully engaged in the work,” Yancey said. “We took turns being official recorders for the submersible dives, and we helped process the samples that were brought up.”
Yancey was in charge of two dives, directing the pilots as to which animals to collect from the ocean floor. Creatures brought to the surface ranged from starfish as large as 12-inches across to six-inch snails, three-inch clams, and five-inch mushroom corals.

The project began with the collection of animals from around deep-sea natural gas vents and seeps. Last summer, Yancey worked with Fiess, Hudson, and Hom, a senior biology major, on laboratory analysis of the osmolytes found in those animals, which feed off the bacteria that thrive in an environment rich in natural gas.

Osmolytes are molecules that protect cells from dehydration — in this particular case, molecules that protect cells from dehydration caused by salt in the seawater.

The students’ analysis included a comparison with clams that Japanese researchers had collected at a depth of 21,000 feet.
“We think we have discovered new types of osmolytes and new patterns in known osmolytes that may also protect these animals from the toxicity of gases and the crushing pressures of the deep,” Yancey said.

With help from his students, Yancey has made osmolytes a research focus for the past several years. The work is part of ongoing research into the ways in which osmolytes affect the human kidney, brain, and heart. Specific medical research is examining the role osmolytes play in treatment of diabetes and in understanding the negative side effects analgesic drugs can have on the kidney.

Whitman students Jeanette Fiess, left, Jennifer Hom, and Hilary Hudson traveled to France recently for an international symposium on deep-sea biology.




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