Scientists excited about new GCRL marine environment laboratory

OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - By Steve Phillips – bio | email

OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - Scientists at USM's Gulf Coast Research Lab are excited about a new research facility. The $2 million Marine Environmental Research Laboratory is located on the Cedar Point campus in Ocean Springs.

Researchers couldn't wait to show off the new building and the $1 million worth of lab equipment inside. Funded with Katrina donations through the Department of Education, the research facility opens a whole new world of scientific possibilities.

"The most interesting thing to me is we have this large scale system," said Dr. Rich Fulford, as he led visitors on a tour of the new lab.

The large "wet lab" contains dozens of tanks where scientists can control variables like salinity, flow rate and food sources. One upcoming project will answer questions about oysters.

"Where we're actually going to be looking at the response of oyster populations through fresh water events. Rainfall, increased rainfall, declines in salinity; things like that. We're going to bring them into the lab and study how they feed and how they behave when we simulate these freshwater events in the laboratory," said Fulford.

"We know some certain things from the field," said Dr. Mark Peterson, "And now if we can control just one or two of those things very critically in the lab, we can learn a whole lot more about what's going on."

Habitat changes are the focus of one long term study. What happens to fish when the natural environment is altered by things like development?

"This is the first phenomenal opportunity to actually be able to bring it in the lab and say, what if? Will they do this based on what we see happening in the field. And that's very exciting," said Peterson.

Plant research is also an integral part of the new center.  A grad student inoculates marsh plants with symbiotic fungi.

"To see if it increases their growth. That way we'd have seedlings ready for restoration faster," said Katie McBride, as she measured some marsh grass.

Dr. Patrick Biber directs the new CPR: Center for Plant Restoration. He'll oversee a newly-funded study that will look at the oil spill impact.

"Primarily the recovery of the marsh from the oil spill. And we'll be going out a number of times in the next six to nine months to sites in Mississippi and Louisiana to look at whether there was an impact, how big the impact was, and how rapidly plants are recovering," said Dr. Biber.

As you might imagine, oil-related research is providing lots of work for scientists at the Gulf Coast Research Lab.

GCRL Director Dr. Bill Hawkins said that of the 30 scientists on staff, about 75 percent are involved in research related to the oil spill.

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