Seeding environmental change

Seeding environmental change

Scientists study evolving ecosystems, life and resources

A group shot of Biology Professor Carlos Robles' lab in Canada in 2010.Student and faculty researchers work in British Columbia near the Barkley Sounds Field Station.Biological Sciences Professor Patrick Krug works with a student along California's coastline.Carlos Robles and Patti Halpin, a professor from UCLA and a collaborator in the Cooperative Institute on Marine Ecosystems and Climate project.Chemistry Professor Krishna Foster (center) conducts a group meeting with students (l-r) Marco Orozco, Ezekiel Tostado, Herbe Pech and Stacie Dahl.
Photos courtesy of Rebecca Flegel, Krishna Foster and Patrick Krug.

Working in urban, coastal and desert environments, several
Cal State L.A. professors and their students are gaining a deeper understanding
of how West Coast environments respond to global climate change.

Their interests span the scientific gamut—from the
circulation of air pollutants, to ocean salinity levels, to the ecological
distribution of species. But, this group of environmental scientists is united
on some fronts: they share an appreciation for the planet and its many life
forms, and have explored their research passions with donor support.

Morton La Kretz and Phyllis Marell in front of La Kretz Hall prior to a opening ceremony in 2009. Both individuals have supported environmental sciences researchon campus.

Morton La Kretz and Phyllis Marell in front of La Kretz Hall prior to an opening ceremony in 2009. Both individuals have supported environmental sciences research on campus.

The Environmental Science Fund was
established by real estate developer Morton La Kretz in 2002 to
advance a field that integrates physical and biological sciences, among other fields, in the study of
the environment.

“The endowment has seeded many exciting new projects.
Younger faculty have especially benefitted, because they got a boost to make
them competitive for grant funds in an increasingly uncertain funding climate,”
said Biology Professor Carlos Robles.

What follows is a sampling of the scientific inquiries currently
fueled by La Kretz’s gift.

Salinity sensors sow understanding for changing
marine communities

Cutting-edge salinity sensors—no bigger than a bite-size
candy bar—are deployed over miles of coastline in British Columbia, monitoring
changes in the saltiness of surface waters. The changes in salinity, a result of shifting rainfall
patterns on the surrounding landscapes, is a concern, scientists say,
because models of climate change predict major shifts in rainfall patterns

The miniature sensors—purchased with funding from La Kretz—collect and store
detailed temperature and salinity level records in 10 minute intervals over
years. The data, downloaded every few weeks, provide a basis for an array of
research by professors Robles,
Patrick Krug and
Hengchun Ye, who hope to shed light on how changes in salinity may impact the distribution of
animals, plants and microbes worldwide.

Biological Sciences faculty Robles and Krug believe that
shifting salinity may result in species migrating to new areas to stay within
their environmental tolerance, and as a result, transform whole marine
communities. Krug is investigating this theory in relation to two species of sea
slugs along the California coastline, while Robles studies the predatory sea
star in British Columbia.

“They are really simple, model systems that allow us
to start to indentify the effects of salinity and temperature on marine
communities,” Krug said. “From there, we will be able to apply these
findings to more complicated problems.”

Ye, a geography professor, also supports these efforts with
climate data and analysis; she plans to refine models predicting future costal
rainfall patterns.

The trio’s research is one component of a comprehensive
investigation of climate and its impact on Pacific Ocean communities, organized
within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Cooperative
Institute on Marine Ecosystems and Climate (CIMEC)
. The team say that they have
had the opportunity to participate in this collaborative effort because the La Kretz seed money helped establish their footing in the field.

Uncovering the ‘dirt’ in L.A.’s air

Utilizing advanced technology and state-of-the-art
equipment, Chemistry Professor Krishna Foster and her students have turned a
critical eye to the air Los Angelenos breathe.

Automobile exhaust and wildfires—two main contributors to
pollutants in the L.A. area—have led to a significant build-up of small
particulate matter in the air, in water and on the ground, Foster said. And the
debris, more specifically large polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which
are most often attached to soot and dust particles, may be incredibly hazardous
to human health, she added.

“Our studies show that we are doing a pretty good job of
getting everything dirty in L.A.,” Foster said, noting that the effects of air
pollution are visible across the city, in urban streets and park-like settings,
such as Griffith Park.

Through new research utilizing a fluorescence detector
purchased with La Kretz funding, though, Foster plans to “fingerprint” more
specifically where 16 different PAHs exist. She will also study how some PAHs
released through incomplete combustion may actually react in the atmosphere and
stabilize as pollutants that remain in the air—and have the ability to effect human health—longer.

Foster’s air study results will be uploaded and shared in a
comprehensive map of the city, lending the data to further research on the
presence of pollution in relation to asthma and other respiratory or health
ailments. She also hopes to work with hospitals on epidemiology, linking illnesses and ailments to pollutants in the area.

“This is a new area of study for me,” Foster said. “But,
like any true scientist, I am not risk-averse. I like going into new territories
and participating in research as a citizen of my community.”

Plant biology: genetic diversity in mosses

Studying the ecological differences and reproductive
secrets of natural populations of desert mosses,
Assistant Professor of
Biological Sciences Kirsten Fisher
has learned that not all mosses are created

Close examinations of a species present in the Mojave
Desert and the San Gabriel Mountains reveal that in the lower, hotter and more
stressful environment, the majority of the plants do not express sex or
reproduce sexually. Also, when plant sex is expressed it is female gender
that predominates.

At higher, more moderate elevations, on the other hand,
male plants, and thus, sexual reproduction and genetic recombination, are much
more prevalent.

“This could be an important look at understanding how
mosses survive,” said Fisher, who hopes to provide genetic data to supplement
earlier studies by colleagues on the species. “With this species of moss, it may
be that a small population of mosses in the mountains is the refuge of genetic
diversity for the entire species. And, if we are trying to ensure the prevalence
of mosses in the desert, it might be critical to protect the growth of plants
higher above.”

Mosses, a desiccant-resistant plant, are a key component in
the desert’s biological soils crust. The crust, made up of several organisms and
their by-products, affects soil stability and erosion, plant growth, soil-plant
water relations and infiltration, among many other factors.

To better grasp the implications of environmental stress on
reproductive traits and diversity of the plant, Fisher is utilizing funding from
the La Kretz fund to develop microsatellite markers that will allow her and her
students to map genetic diversity, and possibly add to DNA sequence data from
the three populations.

“This will give us a fuller picture for understanding plant
evolution and potentially help with conservation decisions,” Fisher said.