Traveling from Hawaii to Sydney is a much easier trip than what most of my fellow EPSI fellows will have to endure. 10 hours on an plane and suddenly you’re more than 5,000 miles away from where you started. Air travel still marvels me that way from time to time. For 99.9% of life on the planet, migrating that far in that such a short amount of time is nothing short of impossible, but we make it seem trivial, easy. Not that we have brought plenty of other species along for the ride. I am sure that there are probably a few roaches sharing this trip with us right. The transportation of species across large, natural biogeographic barriers, intentionally or unintentionally, is one of the primary ways our species has changed ecosystems across the globe. As you keep reading this blog (I hope), you’ll see that I I’ll constantly come back to this theme, or perhaps since this is a science blog, back to this driving question: how do human beings change the ecosystems around them and what are the evolutionary implications of these changes? How are we, as a species, shaping the evolution of all the other species around us?
These are the questions that drive me as a scientist, and it is often the context and lens I use to observe the world around me. I am setting out on this Fellowship today to try figure out one small piece of the puzzle, trying to answer a single question: does sewage effluent limit the ability of populations of sea stars to exchange larvae (and genetic material) with themselves? Or, in other words, does sewage waste genetically isolate populations of sea stars?
Sea stars, or starfish, might seem a little esoteric, but they provide a good model system to ask these kinds of questions. As adults, they don’t move around a lot, so larval exchange is their primary means of genetic connectivity. Additionally, they a fairly abundant and are mostly ignored as a food species, so they aren’t a lot of other direct human impacts upon them. There a lot of relatively ignored invertebrate species that have crucial roles in our coastal ecosystems, and the results and conclusions that I obtain from sea stars very well may apply to them as well. Plus, sea stars don’t run away from us eager scientists, and they quickly and easily grow back the tiny tissue sample that I need for DNA extraction.
Well, I am eager to get started. Too bad I have about another 5 hours on this plane!