Inquiring Minds

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In this issue:

Oil on Water
Count Off
Trash Talk

Also read the magazine print version of Inquiring Minds

Oil on Water
To clean up spills in the Arctic Sea, call in the bugs

Research, illusrations by Michael Sloan

From a one-celled organisms' point of view, Arctic sea ice is a lot like New Hampshire underground granite: riddled with twisty little water-filled passages that make interesting places to live. This is all well and good for the organisms but complicates life for those who want to make the microbes do useful things, like help clean oil spills from ships transiting and drilling in the Arctic as global warming turns the Northwest Passage into a reality.

First, however, researchers need to understand the big picture about these little organisms. "At this point it's not so much about really finding an immediate solution. Our research is still about understanding the system," says Joe Cunningham '03, '08G, a New Hampshire native and a research project engineer in the Coastal Response Research Center who is working on getting bacteria to break down oil. "And every single system is different."

The Coastal Response Research Center was founded in 2004 as a joint project between the UNH and National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration designed to find out better ways to fight spills of oil and other pollution in marine environments. Such spills have been relatively uncommon in areas of the ocean that freeze over in winter because so little commercial traffic or drilling takes place there. That is likely to change as shrinking Arctic ice allows regular shipping traffic past Baffin Island or drilling near Spitzbergen, leading to the need for everything from more long-range helicopters at high latitudes to research on how to clean up spills trapped by freezing waters to create what is called an "oil-ice sandwich."

Part of that clean-up could include bioremediation, using naturally occurring bacteria to "eat" the oil. This is standard practice in aqueous water but poorly understood in ice. One of UNH's tasks within the center's research, says Nancy Kinner '80G, '83G, professor of civil engineering and co-director of the center, is "to help understand the system better. Once we do that, perhaps we can improve biodegregation."

Enter Cunningham's crucibles. These contain a variety of ocean-dwelling bacteria and protists, a type of unicellular organism that likes to eat bacteria. They are being raised in very cold, salty water (twice the salinity of the Great Bay) to simulate Arctic conditions and help determine how to encourage bacterial in an environment where they don't necessarily thrive.

Cunningham is concentrating on the complicated interplay between bacteria and protists to see what conditions are best for getting speedy breakdown of oil. If too few protists are around, bacteria populations grow out of control and then crash, so they can't do much oil remediation. If too many protists exist, bacteria populations can't grow at all, which also means they can't do much remediation. Finding the balance is tough, and it's much tougher in northern ice.

"The first time I touched Arctic ice, I was surprised. It's different from freshwater ice. It's very porous, because it forms in a completely different way," says Cunningham. That porous nature comes from brine channels, passages with diameters of less than 1 millimeter filled with salty water, or brine--ten times the salinity of Great Bay. Brine channels can make up nearly one-third the volume of sea ice, creating a vast ecosystem for microscopic life which, as it turns out, has parallels to the water-filled cracks found in granite hundreds of feet below New Hampshire's soil.

Cunningham is studying a variety of bacteria and protists, unicellular organisms that likes to eat bacteria that live in the brine channels of ice.

Cunningham is concentrating on the complicated interplay between bacteria and protists to see what conditions work best. If there are too few protists, bacteria populations grow and then crash, so they are less efficient at oil remediation. If too many protists exist, bacteria populations can't grow at all. Finding the balance is tough, and it's much tougher in ice.

Happily, Cunningham's master's thesis was about protistan predation in a fractured rock aquifer, providing insight that he hopes to transfer to sea ice. By spring 2010, after solving some pesky problems involved with keeping microbial systems thriving in a lab that's perpetually at 5 degrees Celsius, he should be mixing bacteria, protists and oil in various recipes to get some guidance about the effect of protist populations on Arctic oil remediation.

"It's one of those paradoxes—with the protists you have problems with them grazing the type of bacteria you need, but without the protists you don't have as efficient a bacterial community," Cunningham says. It's possible, Cunningham mused, that work such as his will find that to succeed, cleanup efforts must limit wintertime protists—in confined brine channels, they efficiently eat the oil trapped in the ice—but encourage summertime protists, because in open water they're needed to keep bacteria populations from exploding and crashing.

As oil exploration and shipping increase in the world's last hydrocarbon frontier, Cunningham's and Kinner's research may help clean up vulnerable arctic ecosystems.

Count Off
Can signs of autism be spotted in the very young?

Hand a plastic hammer to a one-year-old, and what does the baby do? Bang things with it, of course—what else would you expect? Shelley Mulligan, associate professor of occupational therapy, expects a lot more, and hopes to use very careful measurements of those expectations to help identify children with autism at a much earlier age than is currently done.

"Research shows that early intervention is important for these kids, so we are trying to see if we can find a way to identify children with autism earlier," she says, regarding an ongoing project at the Seacoast Child Development Clinic that she is conducting with Rae Sonnenmeier of the communication sciences and disorders department and Ann Donoghue Dillon '75, '98G from the Institute on Disability.

Currently, autism is not usually diagnosed until children are 2 to 4 years of age, because typical signs of autism such as repetitive behavior or difficulty socializing don't appear until then. Finding "markers" that can help spot autism in younger children is at the heart of this project.

Research, illusrations by Michael Sloan

The researchers are observing 25 who have older siblings with autism and as a result have a higher probability—10 percent to 20 percent, versus 1 percent in the general public—of having autism themselves. Mulligan is most interested in observing sensory processing behaviors such as how they react to loud or bright toys, and their motor behaviors, such as how they move and manipulate toys when placed on the floor. The babies are given other standardized tests of development, and the parents fill out questionnaires about their progress.

To quantify the sensory motor behaviors, mothers are videotaped playing with and spoon-feeding their infants at home. The videos are then examined for 22 behaviors, which are coded as being present or absent during every 30 seconds of tape. The process required developing objective, "operationalized definitions" of the behaviors. For example, a hand manipulation means "a change of position of the object in the hand, not just grasping, holding it and then releasing it," says Mulligan.

The results may eventually reveal patterns that act as markers. Preliminary results are promising. The team has been following the babies at 6, 12, 18 and 30 months of age. "With 6-month-olds, it's not obvious that we're seeing any signs, while with 12- and 18-month-olds, we're seeing some subtle signs," says Mulligan. "At 12 months, the high-risk babies are very interested in the visual properties of objects, and change positions less often when on the floor."

The goal, of course, is to help children with autism and their families, and early detection is key. Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental condition, but Mulligan is cautiously hopeful that children with this "different wiring" can be helped to adapt, and ultimately live productive and satisfying lives. "We're seeing some nice results from aggressive early intervention, children who are functioning really, really well," she says. "I think the parents should be very optimistic about the future of these children."

Trash Talk
A lot can be learned by digging up garbage

Meghan Howey has drawn a lot of conclusions—some controversial—about Anishinaabek tribal groups that lived in Michigan between 1200 and 1600 A.D. Her evidence comes from pottery fragments, bear claws, post holes and 1,500-year-old "crud" on cooking pots. "Your trash tells more of the truth about you than what you write down," says the UNH assistant professor of anthropology, who just completed the first summer of field work for a project funded with a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. "In most societies where people write, it's only the elite who write. You only get one version of events." And the history of the Anishinaabek—groups later named Ojibway, Ottawa, and Algonquin by the French—was first written by colonial Europeans.

Howey's project is located in a 10,000-acre preserve near Douglas Lake in Northern Mich., where prehistoric artifacts abound just a few centimeters beneath the surface of a forest floor that has remained undisturbed for more than a thousand years. She brought with her a crew of a dozen students from five universities. Justin Linxweiler '10 unearthed an important artifact, a large pot fragment that has been radiocarbon dated to the 1400s. It has a distinctive style of trim around the rim—formed by a cord pressed into the wet clay—that is different from the trim on pots of the same period found along the Lake Huron coast, less than 20 miles away. Likewise, the stone tools unearthed so far are virtually all made of local materials. Previous digs in the region, however, have revealed that before 1200, there was a wide distribution of similar pottery styles and tools derived from coastal stone.

Research, illusrations by Michael Sloan

Around 1200, Howey believes, the free migration and interaction among the Anishinaabek changed when certain groups staked a claim to land along the coast, where it was warm enough to grow maize. Other groups then lost easy access not only to corn but also the abundant fisheries in the great lakes. Near Douglas Lake, she hypothesizes, the people reacted by hunkering down and turning inward, economically and socially, storing food in hundreds of cache pits, which she has been unearthing with her students. The distinctive local pottery and tools as well as analysis of food residue in pots—with very large proportions of acorns in relation to maize, for example—all indicate to Howey that the tribe stayed put. She even thinks their rituals were familial and domestic, as evidenced by artifacts unearthed near hearths, such as bear claws and beaver teeth, still considered totemic by Native Americans living in Michigan today.

In contrast, Howey believes, another tribal group from the same period in central Michigan worked hard to maintain access to coastal resources through public ceremonies and ritual. Howey studied the group in collaboration with her dissertation advisor at the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology, in a central Michigan project that became the basis for her forthcoming book. Archeological digs near the Missaukee "earthworks"—curved ditches and embankments dating to prehistoric times—produced pottery, lithics and food residues indicative of trade between the inland and coastal groups. Perhaps most interesting, and controversial, she found evidence that the earthworks, long believed to have been forts, actually served as some kind of structures for public rituals involving trade.

In fact, two anthropologists in the field reacted vehemently, in print, to her assertion in the journal American Antiquity that both ritual artifacts at the dig as well as the layout of the earthworks themselves were congruent with the secret Native American religious practices known as "midde." The critics subscribe to the long-held theory that midde sprang up after Europeans arrived, and they cite as evidence the official ethnohistory of these tribes, which was written by European colonists. Howey's theory, on the other hand, lends credence to the belief of living Native Americans that Mide predates the arrival of Europeans.

Howey's approach to conducting a dig is also unconventional. She has enlisted the help of numerous "citizen archaeologists" who live in the area to help identify likely sites and has also forged alliances with Native Americans in the area. She has not only made a commitment to leaving burial grounds undisturbed but also helped members of the community identify unmarked graves with the use of remote sensing technology.

Howey will take students into the field in Northern Michigan again next summer, but eventually she hopes to initiate field work in the university's own backyard, at Durham Point. No doubt she will continue to look to trash in her efforts to learn the truth about prehistoric peoples, even if it is at odds with the things people have written about their own society—or that others have written about them. ~

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