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RIC Professor Studies Climate Change’s Impact on Tiny Marine Life

Professor of Biology Thomas Meedel assists biology major Megan Warburton in monitoring the impact of rising ocean temperatures on Ciona intestinalis.

Professor of Biology Thomas Meedel assists biology major Megan Warburton in monitoring the impact of rising ocean temperatures on Ciona intestinalis.

As temperatures rise, many Rhode Islanders look to the seaside for relief.  As climate change progresses, however, Rhode Island scientists look to the sea for answers.

Among those scientists is RIC Professor of Biology Thomas Meedel, who is collaborating with URI Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Steven Irvine on a study of Narragansett Bay resident Ciona intestinalis, also known as a sea squirt.

Sea squirts are filter feeders – animals that filter and digest smaller organisms as water passes through their bodies. When their life cycle completes, the squirts then become food for other organisms in the ocean. Could rising ocean temperatures threaten the survival of these organisms? Meedel thinks it is probable, which is why he, Irvine and several RIC and URI student researchers are studying how the protein composition of these animals responds to increases in temperature. Their work is funded through a National Science Foundation initiative called the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

In the big food chain of the Atlantic, can the health of some sea squirts make a big difference?  “Everything is related to everything else,” Meedel stated. “Global warming, whether attributed to natural or human causes, is going to affect things that we can’t anticipate.”

His research is not without complications, however. One complication is that adult sea squirts remain attached to the surfaces they have chosen during their larval stages. That makes transferring adult specimens grown in a laboratory to another environment difficult without damaging the animal.

A recent gift of an incubator has helped Meedel address this issue. “So much of the research relies on having modern, reliable equipment,” Meedel explained.

The new incubator provides a temperature-controlled nursery for Ciona intestinalis, which as larvae are seeded onto petri dishes and then grown to juveniles. The juvenile squirt and the dish to which it is attached then travel to URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, where they are raised to adults in one of two temperature-controlled tanks filled with raw seawater – one tank at 16 degrees Celsius and another at 20 degrees – for further study.

RIC biology major Megan Warburton is one of the students assisting in the sea squirt project. This summer, she is conducting her research at URI with both Irvine and Meedel, an experience Warburton called invaluable. “I have learned how to work in a laboratory setting, in addition to working in the field collecting specimens.”

Calling Meedel “a great mentor,” Warburton is one of many students who have benefited from the professor’s expertise and support over the years. “This project, and other opportunities like it, provide opportunities for my students to do research and get involved in science in a way that is completely different from the classroom. It changes these kids’ lives and the way they think,” said Meedel.