Seeding environmental change

Scientists study evolving ecosystems, life and resources

A group shot of Biology Professor Carlos Robles' lab in Canada in 2010.
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 equal.

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.