Welcome to Innovation in the Burg, a podcast about science and innovation in St. Petersburg. If you’re a self-described science or technology geek, or even if you aren’t, this will be a fun and informative conversation. Each week, we’ll be joined by a local science or technology expert who will talk about what they’re working on. But to make sure we keep this in perspective and we don’t become too technical, we have a community member joining us. Our hope is that you learn something new and enjoy our conversation.
Welcome to Innovation in the 'Burg, a podcast all about science and innovation in St. Petersburg. Your host is Alison Barlow, executive director of the St. Pete Innovation District. Each week, she'll guide the conversation as one science expert and one community member come together to talk about the amazing things coming out of the St. Pete Innovation District. This week, Dr. Mya Breitbart, professor of Marine Biology at USF College of Marine Science talks with Tee Grizzard, artist and Risk Management Consultant at LassiterWare. The unlikely duo take the plunge and go deep, with an enjoyable and pun-filled conversation on Mya's research involving microbes and DNA, as well as its applications to wastewater treatment and recreational fishing.
"I think people have a misconception that scientists are just focused on their research and don't care about the implications, don't care what the public thinks. That couldn't be further from the truth."
"This is a really collaborative time in science."
Table of Contents
(0:00 – 1:53) Introduction
(1:53 – 5:50) Mya Background
(5:50 – 14:21) Current Projects
(14:21 – 25:45) Sewage & Viruses
(25:45 – 37:05) Mya’s Average Day
(37:05 – 41:52) St. Petersburg Science Festival & Conclusion
Alison: So, welcome to Innovation in the Burg, a podcast about science and innovation in St. Petersburg. If you’re a self-described science or technology geek, or even if you aren’t, this will be a fun and informative conversation. I’m Alison Barlow, executive director of the St. Pete Innovation District. Each podcast I’m joined by a local science or technology expert who will talk about what they’re working on. But to make sure we keep this in perspective and we don’t become too technical, we have a community member joining us. Our hope is that you learn something new and enjoy our conversation.
Let me introduce today’s guests. Our expert is Dr. Mya Breitbart from the USF College of Marine Science. In every milliliter of surface seawater there is one million bacteria and 10 million viruses. Microbes are very diverse and play an important role in our global carbon and nutrient cycling. Mya has spent over a decade studying this and examines the role of viruses and bacteria in a wide range of environments, including sea water, animals, plants, insects, zooplankton, coral reefs and our reclaimed water. Our community member is Tee Grizzard. Tee is a self-described fish geek, who is an avid fisherman in his free time and also an artist who uses fish in part of his artwork. So we might need to ask Tee a little bit about that. So, Mya, let me get you started first. Tell us a little bit. How did you get started in the world of marine science and bacteria and viruses?
Mya: There are two different starts, I think, to different parts of that story. So, I grew up with a lot of science exposure. My parents are both scientists. My dad is a food chemist. My mom’s a geneticist. So we always had a lot of opportunities to learn about science, which of course does not mean you go into science. My brother wanted nothing to do with science, but I latched onto science pretty quickly. And the marine science love really came from the Girl Scouts. So, I was a girl scout from kind of day one and grew up in that system and had an opportunity to go on a lot of national and international trips with Girl Scouts that all centered around water. So we did one in Malaysia called Our Water, Our World, which was all about the connectivity of water supplies and how what impacts one person impacts the other. I did my first research vessel cruise as a high schooler out in the Great Lakes, which now I do lots for research, and I think most influential on Topsail Island—which was unfortunately being pounded by a hurricane right now—but working with the sea turtle nesting program. And those were all things that really drove my love of the marine environment. But I think, like a lot of young people, I wanted to work on the big charismatic animals. You know, the dolphins and manatees and turtles. And it really wasn’t until I got to my undergraduate degree at Florida Institute of Technology that I started realizing that all of these animals, as well as everything else out there, was covered in bacteria and viruses, including us. So, don’t start washing your hands yet, but our microbes are a really important part of everything that we do. And seeing that and having my first research experience, I got to work on isolating bacteria from sponges that were collected from Antarctica. And our goal there was to identify new chemical compounds, like antibiotics, that could be used possibly for health applications. And that was kind of the hook for me, when I realized that I could combine my love of the marine environment with this interest in microbiology. After that I did a summer internship at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California and started learning about marine viruses, which was something I’d never thought about before. And, like you said in your introduction, there are ten billion marine viruses in a liter of seawater, so ten million in a milliliter, in a teaspoon, basically, right? That’s a ton of them. Most of them aren’t anything that would cause problems for us, but they’re really important parts of the marine food webs. And so from that moment on I was hooked into both the marine and the microbiology.
Alison: And it makes me a little scared. When I hear her say microbes and all this stuff.
Tee: She had me hooked.
Alison: So, you said it’s OK that those are out there, the bacteria and the viruses?
Mya: Absolutely. So bacteria are basically the base of our food web. So when you think about what fixes carbon dioxide, right, what makes oxygen the air that we all breathe, everybody thinks of trees and rain forests. That’s kind of the number one, but, especially here in St. Pete, being located so close to the ocean, we should be thinking about our oceans. And so, algae, whether it’s bacterial ones, cyanobacteria, or larger algae, are really what does a good proportion of the carbon fixation. And so especially in the offshore areas, like these big, vast portions of the open ocean, bacteria that are driving the carbon cycle. And then most of those viruses infect those bacteria because they’re the most abundant host out there. So even your microbes have microbes.
Tee: The interesting thing to me is, if you think about it, having 10 billion in a liter of water, to me that would be almost be like the whole liter of water, but it’s really not. It’s amazing that the research in the things that she’s doing is so minute that it’s oblivious to most people.
Alison: That’s true. We don’t even know it’s there.
Mya: You know, if I held up a clear glass jar with this water in it, you would look at it and say that looks like the most pristine water I’ve ever seen, right, because everything in there is microscopic. You just can’t see it with your naked eye.
Alison: That’s fascinating. So, what are you working on now?
Mya: We have actually a lot of projects, so I’m going to see what you guys are most interested in or what I can reel Tee in on, I guess. When I started, I really started down the microbial route. Bacteria and viruses. And when we do that we need to develop a lot of DNA-based methods. We can’t see them in this clear jar of water. You look; there’s nothing there. So we could put it under a high powered microscope, and basically what we see are little tiny cells, in the case of the bacteria, where the viruses we can’t even see with the light microscope. We have to go to things like electron microscopes.
Tee: Hang on a second. So, in that liter of water that seems completely pristine, how do you extract something so minute? I mean, it’s microscopic that you have a hard time seeing with a microscope. How do you get that?
Mya: Filters. We filter a lot of water. So, I think, you know, while you go out on your boat and you cast your rod over and you wait until you get a bite, I just fill up giant, giant buckets of water and then I watch it drip through a filter. And our way of doing that is to catch those bacteria. And so our filters that we use are 200 nanometers. They’re extremely small, but that lets us catch bacteria. And the viruses go through that. So we use even smaller filters for them and so using that we can kind of concentrate them out of the seawater. But then when we study them, what do you do, if you can’t look at them? So, you could see a bug in your backyard and say, “This is an insect I’ve never seen before. How many legs does it have? What color is it? What is its behavior? Since we can’t do any of that visually, we really rely on their DNA. And so, every organism has DNA. We have DNA. Our plants have DNA. Our pets have DNA. Your strawberry that you eat—we use strawberries all the time for education activities, because if you extract their DNA, there’s enough DNA there that you can see it with your naked eye. So we do this at Science Festival all the time.
Tee: I would never have thought that a fruit or vegetable would have a DNA pattern to it.
Mya: Absolutely everything alive has DNA. And even viruses, which consensus is out whether they’re alive or not. So, yeah, we can use this DNA to kind of target them and see what they are. So by sequencing their DNA in the same way that we could distinguish the different people—if we sequence all three of us, I could tell you A. that we’re all human. That’s good. Just in case anybody was worried.
Alison: We wonder some days.
Mya: For that, we use conserved genes that can tell us, okay, this fish is a fish, and then we can go a level deeper and say what species of fish is this. And then we can go even deeper into that and sequence full genomes and look at, like, who was that fish’s mother. In our case, we do this a lot for things like fish eggs. A fish egg is a tiny little circle. Think of caviar. You’ve eaten caviar. You can’t really tell in this tiny little round ball what species it belongs to. And so, while you might not need DNA barcoding to know that you’ve pulled up— what’s your favorite fish?
Tee: Tarpon fish.
Mya: Tarpon. So, you pull up a tarpon. You know it’s a tarpon. You don’t need me to tell you that. But if you go out there and you pull a net and you get all these tiny little eggs, how do you know if any of them are tarpon eggs?
Tee: I have no idea.
Mya: I think the only way we could do it before the DNA methods came along would be to incubate those eggs in your bathtub for a really long time, which your family might not like, and wait until they start to grow up and see if there’s a tarpon in your bathtub, right?
Tee: It’s actually kind of funny, because as Alison alluded to, I do gyotaku fish art. And I did convince my wife to let me store a tarpon in the bathtub for a couple days.
Tee: True story.
Mya: So, if you don’t want to be incubating all these fish and waiting for them to grow up, maybe you want to be processing hundreds or thousands of these eggs, what we can actually do is take each individual egg. We put each one in its own tube. We add a little buffer to it. We literally squash it up with a toothpick. If you thought your job was boring, try being the person who has to squash a thousand fish eggs a day into a tube. We extract their DNA, and then we go after it with one of these gene markers. And by sequencing that and then comparing it to big databases, we can tell you this is a red snapper egg, this is a flounder egg, this is a tarpon egg. So, you’re probably thinking “Why? What do we care?” But if you care about fish, which I know Tee certainly does, and you’re trying to design strategies to figure out how many fish can we take, where can we take them, what areas do we need to make sure are safe and preserved, you’ve got to think about all those life stages, not just where the adults are or where juveniles are, but also where are the areas that they’re spawning their eggs. Because if you can’t protect those eggs and then where those eggs going, if you don’t know what they are, you know you could be cutting out this whole stage of the life cycle.
Tee: So, curious question. Is cutting out a stage of life cycle, and understanding what you do from bacteria and viruses, have you ever had any correlation between some of the viruses that you study verses their attack on embryonic eggs?
Mya: Yeah, no, it’s a great question. So, a lot of what we do tends to be like specific to a certain taxa. And that’s the way when people go out and do a survey, you might be surveying the corals, right. And so you go out and you lay your transects and you dive them and you look at all the corals—
Alison: What’s transects? Sorry.
Mya: Just a line, basically. So if you’re going to do a dive, you might lay a straight line and say we’re gonna swim across this line for ten minutes and count all the quarrels we see, or count all the fish we see.
Tee: So, for layman’s terms, it’s a grid pattern so they know that “I pick this up in this amount of time for this space.”
Alison: So it’s an imaginary line? Or is it actually a physical line?
Mya: Usually it’s a physical line. And if you want to survey what’s on the bottom, it’s often like a square. And so you drop the square and then you count all—
Alison: What’s the square made out of?
Mya: PVC, generally, it tends to be.
Tee: If you’ve ever looked at a wreck dive, somebody doing a wreck dive, they’ll actually plot it, and then marine archaeology will use a similar type….
Mya: And so, I think even in the best studies that are trying to look at the whole ecosystem, it’s really tricky to look at multiple things, right, because most fish experts are not also coral experts, are not also invertebrate experts and can tell different shrimp species apart just by eye. And so you try to look at all those things together. Then you add in the bacteria and viruses, which kind of no one can look at—
Tee: Except Mya.
Mya: —unless you have super powers. Like my super microscopic eyes.
Mya: But yeah, in that case we use kind of different DNA methods. And this is a cool one, too. So we used the word environmental DNA. And so, if you think about your CSI forensics, which I think a lot of people can relate to, after we left this room someone could come in here with swabs and they could identify that all three of us were here, as well as everybody who used this room probably for quite a while in the past. And so, just in the same way that we leave DNA behind everywhere we go, so do all the marine animals. And so the idea is that if you go out and you just collect your jar of seawater, it contains DNA of like all of the things that have been swimming through that area. So, the fish kind of drop scales and they shed mucus and you have everything—you have bacteria and viruses, obviously, in that water physically.
Tee: Biological waste all over the place.
Mya: Yeah. So, things like fecal samples, right, from various things that swum in there. And we’re going to come back to feces later, for those of you guys who are holding out for that moment. But we basically get traces of everything that was there. And so, in your jar—we do this a lot right now in the Florida Keys, in trying to understand what the diversity is at all these different levels and how it plays together. And so, no, I’ve never caught a sea turtle in my jar, thank goodness, because I don’t know what I would do if that happened. But I have found sea turtle DNA in my jar, and so this lets us start to establish connections between which types of animals are there at the same time, along with plants, and then even now linking that to the bacteria and the viruses.
Tee: So, quick question for that. Do you see seasonal changes between lunar cycles and temperature variations on what you’re seeing?
Mya: Yes, we’re definitely seeing temperature cycles, seasonal cycles and spatial cycles. We’re not at the point yet where I can tell you what is driving those differences. So, part of what we’ve been doing in the Florida Keys is the long-term monitoring project. And so, if you go out and you sample one time—I always hear people say the analogy of the forest.
Tee: It’s a shot in the dark.
Mya: Yeah. If you go to a forest in the winter you might think trees don’t have leaves. This is what they look like. Right? You go back in the spring, summer, and fall. Very different scenarios. And so, initially we do see lots of differences in our different samples. But now the question is what is driving these patterns? We’re doing monthly sampling to be able to track the DNA of all these organisms across all these levels. And then thing is patterns you see in one year, do they repeat in different years? What’s the impact of something like a hurricane going through the area, or an oil spill, or a red tide? Any of these things.
Tee: Sewage releases.
Mya: Sewage releases. I knew he couldn’t wait to get to sewage. Alison, can you handle it?
Alison: Yeah, go for it.
Mya: All right. So I think one of the coolest things about DNA sequencing is that you find whatever is there, not just what you’re looking for. And so, I was telling Tee this story earlier, but I got totally bamboozled by my Ph.D. advisor when I was in grad school. I got brought in to work on this cool marine virus project, and then all of a sudden he had me sampling sewage. Sewage is not sea water. Like, one day I’m on the California beaches of San Diego with my buckets, and the next day I’m at the wastewater treatment plant. And then within a week after that I’m collecting fecal samples from my friends and family. Not a progression anybody wants, right?
Alison: Did you question your choice at that moment?
Mya: Many, many times.
Tee: What am I doing here?
Mya: Exactly. And I promise, since I see you both getting squirrely, I did not bring any sampling containers today. I’m not going to be reaching out to listeners of the podcast to contribute to our study.
Tee: I’m good.
Mya: But, when we started doing this, our goal was to look for human viruses, right? So we’re sampling human feces. We want to find viruses that are important for human health. And I think, like many studies in science, you don’t always get the goal that you’re hoping to get, right? And so we were using a method called metagenomics. So, where genomics is sequencing the genome of a single organism, metagenomics is doing that for a whole community. So, in our case we took our fecal sample, we added a bunch of buffer to it to kind of liquefy it, shook the crap out of it—
Tee: Pun intended.
Pun intended. We did our filtration. We purified the viruses really well. We extracted all of their DNA and RNA, and we sequenced them. And we just said what types of viruses are here? And we did not find a lot of human viruses. The most abundant things we find are viruses that infect the bacteria in our gut, which are called phage. So, there’s lots of bacteria. They’re going to be kind of the most abundant hosts more than humans. And the other strange and super fun, my favorite thing that we work on, I think, was that we found lots of plant viruses. And so, yeah, I’m getting strange looks all around the studio here. But we eat a lot of plants in our diet, and some plant viruses are extremely stable. In fact, evolutionarily they’ve used this as a strategy to spread themselves. So, if something like a bird eats a seed of a plant and then it goes through the bird system—birds poop as well—and that could be—
Tee: I read a book one time that says “Everybody Poops.”
Mya: Everybody poops. As a scientist I can back this up for you. It’s absolutely true. Now, if you want a good one, there is a new book that just came out by a bunch of scientists that met together on Twitter called “Does it fart?” That will answer that question, because not everybody farts. So, you might check that one out. I have no stake in this business.
Tee: But I know everybody poops.
Mya: But I know everybody poops. So, then when that bird poops it’s in a different location, generally, than it ate, right? And so that’s a way that a virus can get from one place to another. And so, we started finding all these plant viruses in human poop, and the coolest thing was that we could take those viruses and put them back on a plant, and that plant would get infected. So, this means this virus survived living in the digestion system, low pH stomach acids, all of that, and was still infectious afterwards.
Alison: That’s fascinating.
Tee: But when you say infectious, it’s not necessarily a bad infectious, just an infectious.
Mya: Correct. We have no indication that this is bad for humans. We’re just kind of a vector in this case. But this virus in particular, that was really the dominant virus. Like between a million and a billion copies of a gram of human feces, so not very much. I mean, there’s a ton of these viruses. The most abundant one is called pepper mild model virus. So, it’s a pepper virus, and it’s super widespread in almost all processed food that involves peppers. So, if you like salsa, you like hot sauce. It also infects bell peppers, so it’s not just hot sauce. One of my favorite moments of this project was that I was in Singapore working with the genomics group, and we went around their food court at their genomics center and we got one dish from each of the vendors there, and we tested them all.
Tee: And this was in China?
Mya: So, it’s pretty widespread, and we’ve now done studies throughout the U.S. And we find this a lot in sewage. And sewage is kind of this great integrator, right, because lots of people’s poop goes into sewage systems. So, it’s a good place to monitor for viruses of interest. But it also, of course, can be a problem, because there are sewage discharges, intentional or unintentional. And treatment wasn’t always designed to remove viruses. And so, now if you think we have this plant virus, and this plant virus is really abundant in humans, but so far we haven’t found it and things like pigs and horses and cows, and so this makes it a really useful tool because if you have to shut your beach down due to fecal contamination, that’s bad. It’s bad for the economy, it’s bad for the people who live there and it ruins everybody’s Saturday, right?
Tee: So, these viruses are good indicators, or a primary indicator, I would guess, but when you hear about a beach being closed it’s from E.coli and other types of bacterias. That’s different from these viruses, but these viruses, what I’m understanding, is more of an indication of—
Mya: Like a human-specific release. So, you’re exactly right. When beaches are closed, what kind of happens as part of routine monitoring is groups go out, they collect the water, they culture it to see if they can grow E.coli from it—or they call them fecal coliforms. And so, if they can grow these kind of indicator bacteria. And there’s a couple problems with this approach. So, it’s a great approach, right, and it’s cheap, and it’s easy to do, and it’s standardized and regulated. So these are all good reasons that we still do this, but there are a couple big problems. The first is if I go out and collect a water sample right now, I’m not going to know until tomorrow morning whether that should be closed. So, that means everybody swam all day today that I’m going to close the beach tomorrow, and then I’m going to check tomorrow afternoon’s sample, and if that’s clean, open it the third day.
Tee: So, there’s a delay in the reporting.
Mya: Yeah, big time lag. And then the other problem is that E. coli is found in a lot of places, and so just finding it doesn’t mean that there’s necessarily a risk to human health. Including it can have like reservoirs in the sediments, so it can kind of hang out in the sediment, and then maybe you just got a wind event that stirred some of that up. Whereas, this pepper virus, you don’t find it out normally in the environment. And we’ve done some tests. It only hangs around in terms of being able to detect it for about a week. And so, if we go out there and we can detect the pepper virus we can say there is a fecal contamination event. Its likely human in origin, and you should close the beach. Those tests are much more expensive to run, and you need specialized labs and people with expertise and equipment. But those tests can be done much more quickly, like within hours. And then, I think, in a perfect world, you would then combine that. You would say, “Okay, we detect human specific fecal pollution here.” You would then combine that with all of this knowledge that exists in our community about the circulation of the water. So where does water come from? Where does it go to?
Tee: Sorry, I stop you there. So, from what I’m hearing, this pepper virus is present in all fecal matter, or human fecal matter.
Tee: So, when our sewage system goes through the tertiary process and it becomes reclaimed water and people are watering their lawns with reclaimed water, that’s come from raw sewage. Is that pepper virus present in reclaimed water?
Mya: Yeah, that’s a great question. It is. We can definitely detect it in the reclaimed water. None of our attempts to actually grow the virus out of reclaimed water have ever succeeded. And it seems that it’s inactivated. You asked before about it being infectious. There’s a big difference between it being present, like we can detect its RNA in the sample, versus it’s actually capable of infecting something.
Tee: So, a few weeks ago there was a sewage release in Venetian Isles area and it closed that portion of Riviera Bay. My question would then become, people using reclaimed water in that runoff getting into Riviera Bay, can you detect differences between those pepper viruses that are contained in the reclaimed water versus a release?
Mya: No, we can’t. And so what you would need to do is kind of know what your baseline values are for a given area and then see if you see a big increase on top of that.
Tee: Okay, because, I mean, that’s one of the big things here in St. Petersburg, is reclaimed water, and what we’re doing with it and how much we’re paying for it. And it’s interesting to me that it’s there, but it’s fascinating for me from what I’m hearing.
Mya: And it’s a really interesting issue. For me, when I moved here—I moved here 13 years ago from San Diego, and I was just blown away by how well St. Pete has done with water recycling and reclaimed water. And I went and toured the reclaimed water facilities. And, I mean, freshwater is a big concern, and having enough freshwater, and so if we can use reclaimed water for irrigation and things like that, it solves a couple problems because it solves how do we get rid of all of this waste. And it also solves how do we get enough water to be able to have our nice green lawns. But one of our concerns was could this transmit plant viruses to crops? Could this be a problem for agriculture? I think no is the answer. At least not so far. There have been reported problems in terms of salts in the water and some sensitive plants, but it doesn’t seem like the viruses are infectious. So, that shouldn’t be a concern. From our standpoint, I think we talk about it as an ultra-conservative indicator. So, it’s one of the harder things to remove. And because it’s really abundant, even if it gets diluted out—you always hear of dilution as a solution to pollution. Don’t quote me saying that. Just kind of deferring a problem, right? And so, there are a lot of things that our wastewater treatment isn’t designed to take out of water. For example, chemicals such as like hormones, birth control, aspirin. All these drugs that modern populations take. And so, there is nothing in our designs to remove that. That wasn’t what these things were designed for, and so I think it’s a safe bet that anywhere we’re detecting this pepper virus—like if we go out and we find it on a coral reef, that means that wastewater has reached that coral reef. Now, it doesn’t distinguish between raw wastewater and tertiary treated wastewater. We always talk about building a tool box to differentiate these different things, and so you’d want to use different tools in different scenarios. So this is just one piece of the toolbox, but it might be nice to know was there an intentional or unintentional wastewater discharge from a treatment facility or was it just the horse farm up the road. Or, I know there’s always discussions about can we do horseback riding on the beaches, and how’s that going to affect the water quality, right. And so, it’s really nice to have tools that can distinguish between these different sources.
Tee: Well, if you think about it, a lot of Memorial Day or Labor Day weekends, you get a thousand people on the beach, too. I’m not worried about horses as much as I’m worried about little Johnny next door to me.
Mya: Absolutely. And don’t forget all these things that we started the conversation with, from the fish to to birds to alligators. They all poop too, right? And so, there are going to be, for example, high concentrations of E. coli in areas where there’s a lot of waterfowl. And that does don’t necessarily mean that there’s a problem, right?
Tee: She said waterfowl. [laughs]
Alison: She did.
Mya: I promised I’d keep you guys amused this morning.
Alison: The word play is amazing.
Alison: So, let me switch gears for just a second and ask you a little bit more about what does an average day look like for you?
Mya: It’s not nearly as fun as I think I’ve made it sound at the beginning of this podcast. I spent a lot of time looking at my computer, sadly, in an office, but thankfully my office has a really nice view. And that’s one of the great perks of being here. I’m a professor, so my main responsibilities are teaching, and a big part of that teaching is mentoring graduate students. And I hope to be able to come back to that a little bit more because all this incredible research that I’ve been telling you about, I don’t do it. I’m sorry. I wish. I wish that I did that all day. I wish that I was out on the boat, and filtering the water and extracting DNA, but that is really my students that do that. And so, the students are really at the front edge of the science. And people like me boss people around, hopefully nicely, beg people to give us funding—
Tee: Encourage them to do their best.
Mya: We train them, which is clearly important, because these are the future scientists.
Tee: So, interestingly enough, I have somewhat of a science background, as well. So, the initial collection and the quality of that data translates into the end result. So, even though they may be on the grunt side of the work, it’s very important for the way they’re collecting the data.
Mya: Yeah. And they take it all the way through. So, it’s not that they do the grunt side and then I do the high level thinking. I mean, I like to think of myself as a high level thinker, but they’re are all the high level thinkers, too. Our whole job is to train them to be us, basically, right? And so, they collect the data, they generate the data, they analyze the data, they interpret the data and figure out what the next steps are. And so, it’s not saying, “OK, you got that result. Now you’re going to do this.” That’s a very different thing than what we’re doing, where we’re saying, “What are your results? OK. What do you think you should do next?”
Alison: So it’s critical thinking skills.
Alison: You’re really trying to train them to be able to do this.
Tee: So, interestingly enough, I used to work on boats and one of the captains I worked with would never tell me how to do something. He would say, “Okay, it’s gotten to this point. It’s not happening from that point. Why did it go wrong? I’ll help you—” but it seems like that’s what you’re doing with your students, as well, is letting them learn forward.
Mya: Absolutely, and we learn a ton from them, too, right. I mean, I have people in my lab who have come from a huge variety of backgrounds. So, we were recently doing a seagrass project and I had a postdoc, someone who’s someone who has already earned their Ph.D. and got a grant to come from Belgium. So, she came to my lab with a plant virology and a marine biology background. And we wanted to work on seagrass, so I connected her with some folks at Fish and Wildlife and they were super awesome about getting us out there on the water and teaching us everything we needed to know. I think my favorite part of what I do as a scientist is being able to apply these methods across a ton of different fields. And so, you have to be a little fearless in going into new project, right? So, did it concern me that I wouldn’t be able to identify a species of seagrass, or that I didn’t know much about their ecology? Sure, but I worked with experts who did know how to do that. And through that we’ve done a lot of things. I have a project right now collecting spiders, primarily in my backyard, and looking at their viruses. We’ve done mosquito viruses. We’ve done whitefly viruses that move a lot of plant viruses. And so, it’s kind of these same methods across a whole variety of problems. I love problems.
Tee: Can I throw at project that you may be familiar with or not in seagrass regeneration and prop-scarring? It’s a problem down in the Florida Keys, and it’s a problem pretty much anywhere we have shallow grass beds. I have seen in the past—let’s call it aqua— I don’t know exactly what the right term for it is, but you’ll see short stands just above the water surface for birds to land on to fertilize those flats with their fecal matter. I’m assuming that you’ve heard of it, because I know I’ve seen it in the Florida Keys. They’ll do an acre or so of heavily prop-scarred bottom that they’ll do researches: are those birds contributing to regeneration of those grass beds?
Mya: I have no idea.
Tee: Sweet! I gotcha.
Mya: So, I’m also very unafraid, you’ll learn, to hear I have no idea.
Tee: I win fecal matter and I win waterfowl.
Mya: You did.
Alison: One thing you mentioned, Mya, something that a lot of people may not know is how much collaboration happens, in particular here in St. Pete. Because you mentioned Florida Fish and Wildlife, which is literally next door to the College of Marine Science. And so, you guys share resources, you’re collaborating a lot, you’re going out on vessels together, and things like that.
Mya: This is a really collaborative time in science. So, obviously I wasn’t doing this 100 years ago, but if you look at like older science papers, there are a lot less authors. And if you look at current papers there are these really long author lists, and I think what that reflects is we do a lot more collaborative science now. And so, for example, with this fish egg project, we’ve already established Tee knows way more about fish than I do, and I have zero shame in admitting that. So, I’m working with fish biologists who know when to go out there and collect these eggs. They know what it means that we found spotted sea trout here versus somewhere else.
Tee: You know one of the interesting—Mya and I had an opportunity to briefly meet before this started, and one of the things that intrigued me was that they were finding fish eggs of species that you wouldn’t normally associate with backwater grass flats in mangrove tidal estuaries.
Alison: So, a weird placemat where they would end up.
Mya: I promised Tee I would bring this list, so I guess we’re going to do this live. So, we did a small study when we started doing the fish egg work. We’ve now expanded it to the entire Gulf of Mexico, but when we started we just started really locally in Terasia Bay, which is an area he’s really familiar with. And our initial study was to ask the questions: A. Could we do this? Could we get DNA out of individual fish eggs and identify them to species? B. Did the fish eggs that we saw reflect the larvae, or the adults, that we saw.
Tee: In the local populations.
Mya: In the local populations. Because a lot of times people use the larvae that are present as kind of a proxy, a way of guessing who is spawning there. But larvae can swim and they’re out there for a lot longer, and so the eggs, when they’re released in the water, they just kind of passively float. And so, we can work with physical oceanographers to say, OK, we think these have been in the water for about 12 hours. So, if they’re at point X now, where were they released to get to point X in 12 hours?
Alison: So, looking at currents and flows.
Tee: Current studies.
Mya: Absolutely. And so in Terasia Bay, our top five species of fish eggs that we found were common snook, striped mojarra, spotted sea trout, sea robin and southern kingfish.
Alison: What surprises you, Tee?
Tee: So, the mojarra is a forage fish for the snook, but the southern king fish, that’s not the king mackerel that you’re thinking of. It’s a different species. It’s a smaller species.
Mya: And we did a bunch of modelling to make sure that, you know, was it that these eggs could have been sort of laid outside of Terasia Bay and then pushed in by the currents. But actually, the way we designed the sampling, these were really originated from Terasia Bay, and if anything else would be pushed out. So we think that them being spawned inside actually helps them get to their nursery grounds. But, in contrast, those were our most abundant eggs. Now, our most abundant larvae were not those same species. There is very little overlap. In the larvae we saw a ton of lined sole and drum.
Tee: So, let me ask a question. Black drum, red drum, croakers. So, they’re all in the drum family. Sea trout are also in the drum family. I gotcha.
Mya: You got me.
Tee: No, but it’s interesting to me, because a lot of what she’s doing on a molecular level transcends to what I do on a recreational level, because everything builds off of those bacteria and viruses that are present, and that’s the basis of what I’m trying to catch.
Mya: Yeah. And I can give you scientific names, but I’ll butcher them, and that will probably answer your question.
Tee: And more interestingly enough, some of the work that Mote Marine is doing, as well, with redfish releases and snook hatcheries and some of those things—are you able to tell, and I may be way off base here with this, but are you able to tell how those populations—I would assume that they have a baseline DNA bubble of what they’re reproducing and releasing into the environment. So, do those releases have biological indicators that, yes, they are hatchery-based fish or native wild fish?
Mya: It can be done. Not with the methods that we’ve been using. So, the methods that we’re using are going after a gene that really just lets us tell what species it is. There are more variable regions of DNA. You may have heard of microsatellites or single nucleotide polymorphisms where you’re looking for like—
Tee: No., I haven’t. [laughs]
Mya: Word of the day.
Alison: What is SNPs?
Mya: SNPs are single nucleotide polymorphisms, and they’re literally looking at in the four bases of the DNA, like, do you have an A at this position or do you have a T at this position.
Alison: What does that tell you, then?
Mya: So, that is where we can get at these really fine level of population details. People use DNA a lot to determine, like, “Are these two populations connected or not?” So, we were involved in a study recently with deep sea squid. And the question was, in the areas of the Gulf of Mexico that were affected by the oil spill, do those populations spread to other areas? Do they get replenished? So, if there is a local impact, how much of an impact is it going to have on a larger scale or long term? And so, you can use these other regions of the DNA that are going to be very specific to each species that you’re studying to tell you, like, are these two populations breeding with each other.
Tee: Interestingly enough, it’s a huge economic deal from the red snapper populations. And the red snapper populations, it’s been thought of as being a local population, but in what I’ve understood through NOAA and some of the national marine fisheries, it is a species that will transect over large areas. So, it’s not a local population. And that has huge economic impact because of the economic driver of what the red snapper fishery is and how the government actually regulates that and the economic impact not only commercially, but recreationally, as well.
Mya: The currents are a really important part of all this. So, if you want a fish population in a certain area, but if you protect that area but all the eggs that are spawned in that area are just being pushed into another area, you haven’t actually helped feed adults in that area, right? And so, you kind of have to think about how all these life stages fit together if you’re missing a nursery ground, you can’t protect this species, right? And so, there’s a lot of interplay, and if we can understand here are the important reasons to protect because they’re contributing to the next generation, whereas you could fish all you want over here because—
Tee: It’s not going to hurt anything.
Mya: Yeah. And so, I think it can be a perceived as opposite interests here between the fishermen and the stock assessment scientists. But if everybody kind of works together, we can make smart choices about what to protect and, in some cases, the studies even show that by protecting a smaller area you can have more fish overall.
Tee: And that’s a big challenge, as well, to say that are we doing the right management practices to affect the overall populations. Because I know the West Florida Guides Association is going up to the FWC and actually recommending to them, even though all the red tide effects have been mainly south of Tampa Bay, but as a moratorium for redfish and snook harvest on a voluntary basis to help recover the stocks in the overfishing, because a lot of the commercial pressure from guides, they’re coming up into Tampa Bay and it’s putting more pressure on the Tampa Bay estuary from the sport fish, the snook redfish and those. So, they’re actually petitioning the FWC to put a moratorium on harvest of redfish and snook in the Tampa Bay.
Alison: So, we’re running out of time. I feel like we could talk for hours on this, and I know we didn’t even cover all the topics that we thought we might. Is there anything, Mya that you want to add that we didn’t mention? Anything that we should bring up?
Mya: Just something for anybody local who might be listening—you had originally asked me maybe to think about where people could get more information if they’re interested in this or any other topics. And a great event that we have coming up in October, on October 20th, which is Saturday, is the St. Petersburg Science Festival, and this is on the beautiful USF St. Petersburg campus. It’s right downtown and everybody is there.
Tee: If you haven’t been, it is a phenomenal event, and if anybody locally has children that have—my kids actually love it. I’m kind of a water passionate, so it’s easy for me to get my kids engaged with it. But I see kids that have no experience with the water whatsoever really light up and their eyes go “Wow!”
Mya: And it’s the water. It’s also robotics, drones. It’s a little bit of everything. We’re going to do an innovation district tent this year, and so we’re actually going to highlight the interconnectivity. So, taking art, marine science, and life science, and how do they play off each other.
Tee: I paint fish. [laughs]
Alison: There you go. We’ll get you in there, Tee. Painting fish.
Mya: When I’m not running the activities, I’m checking out all the other booths. Last time we were next to NASA, and I was kind of like looking over there like, “What are those guys doing? That’s pretty cool.”
Tee: Did you say, “Far out”?
Alison and Mya: [laugh]
Alison: And it’s on Saturday October 20th from 10:00 to 4:00. Free event. As Mya said, its USF St. Pete campus. And it’s also—we have to mention, there’s actually a two for one kind of festival going on.
Mya: Marine Quest.
Alison: Marine Quest. Tell them about that.
Mya: Yeah, so Marine Quest I started way before the St. Pete Science Festival. It is in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Mission building. And so, it is literally right there. You can just walk from one event to the other. And you can basically get a behind the scenes into all of Fish and Wildlife. There is actually way more to do there than you could possibly cover in the time of the Science Festival.
Tee: Yeah, you get to it all in a day.
Mya: And things are different every year, so if you’ve come out before, hopefully you’ve been watching it and want to come out again, and if you’ve never been it’s just an absolutely great time and great opportunity to help make connections.
Tee: And it’s not just walking by a table to pick up some information. It’s actually a hands-on, interactive day that truly gets you engaged with what’s going on in those areas.
Alison: And I also have to mention that Mya is going to be one of our speakers at an event that we have October 10th, which is State of the Science. And it’s modeled after the city, state of the city and state of the economy. This will be the first year we’re doing it. As you can tell from the conversation with Mya, but also all the other scientists and researchers in our community, we have a lot going on. And a lot of times we don’t even know about it, but they’re known outside our community for their papers, for their speaking engagements, for their research and collaborations. So, on October 10th in the evening from 5:30 to 8:00, we will have eight speakers, all TED Talk style, so very fast and short. Six minutes each. I don’t know how they’re going to do it.
Mya: We don’t either.
Alison: I know. And we’re going to hear a cross-section of what’s going on in St. Pete. So check out the St. Pete Innovation District website, which is StPeteInnovationDistrict.com. And anything else that I’ve left out today?
Mya: If you’re interested, reach out. I mean, I don’t want to get inundated with 800 e-mails this afternoon, but I think people have a misconception that scientists are just focused on their research and don’t care about the implications, don’t care what the public thinks. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We spend a lot of time, a lot of energy trying to communicate, to reach the public through science events, through science festivals, through public lectures. We want to hear from you. We want to tell you about what we’re doing. That’s, I think, the most exciting part of the job. We want to inspire kids to become future scientists, or maybe you to go back to school and be a scientist. So, yeah, be in touch. Bother us, please.
Alison: That’s awesome. Well, thank you, Mya. Thank you, Tee.
Tee: Thank you for having me.
Alison: This was our inaugural podcast. It was a chance for us to test this methodology and have a great conversation. I will tease a little that our next—
Tee: She said tease. [laughs]
Alison: I did. Tease/Tees. The next podcast is going to be with Chad Mairn from St. Petersburg College Innovation Lab and Dr. Alison Watson from the USF St. Petersburg. They’re going to be talking about STEM and education, and in particular—and I’ll ask you two this question, which was something I never thought of—how does a student who has low sight or is blind learn about cells? They can’t see a microscope. Chad’s figured out a way to help train them.
Mya: Can I guess?
Alison: Yeah, go.
Mya: Do they 3D print them so they can feel them?
Alison: They do.
Mya: Very cool.
Alison: Good job, Mya.
Tee: That is cool.
Alison: Yes. So, that’s the next conversation. So, thank you all for joining us. This has been Innovation in the ‘Burg. Have a great day.
Alison Barlow is the Executive Director of the St. Petersburg Innovation District. Her role is to harness expertise in health science, marine science, education, and art to form unique collaborations. These multi-sector, cross discipline collaborations strive to identify innovative solutions that will grow the economic and social vibrancy of St. Petersburg and address key global issues. Alison grew up in St. Petersburg, graduated from Boca Ciega High School, received a Bachelors in Hospitality Administration from Florida State University, and later a Master of Business Administration with a concentration in Management of Global Information Systems from American University in Washington D.C. For 17 years, Alison worked as a business and technology consultant based in Washington DC, often for the Department of Defense. She focused on strategic planning, process improvement and technology collaboration. Following her relocation back to St. Petersburg, Alison became the manager and a lead facilitator for Collaborative Labs at St. Petersburg College. Alison joined the St. Petersburg Innovation District as its inaugural Executive Director in June of 2017. In addition to her work, Alison is involved with the Leadership St. Petersburg Alumni Association, Friends of Strays Animal Shelter Board, and the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.