School of Biological and Marine Sciences Seminar Series 2018/2019

Archive of events

Creating the right environment for an aquaculture dominated future

Dr Rob Ellis, University of Exeter

Friday 10 May 2019

As the fastest growing food producing sector globally ($165bn current first sale), aquaculture is critical for meeting the increased demand for aquatic food that is projected over the coming decades, due to global population increase and an increasing middle income sector. Nonetheless, current projections suggest we face a 28 million ton seafood demand supply deficit within the next five to ten years.

Overcoming critical challenges the aquaculture sector currently faces, such as disease and changing climatic conditions, are thus major priorities to ensure that sustainable intensification of this industry sufficiently addresses any projected shortfall. This seminar will highlight how optimising the environmental conditions we produce aquatic organisms in is vital to maximise productivity, despite being a too often overlooked industry wide. It will therefore demonstrate how an in depth physiological knowledge can be applied to help provide ten billion people with their aquatic protein demand.


“Gene sharing” in nature: can I borrow that gene please?

Dr Chiara Boschetti, University of Plymouth

Friday 29 March 2019

Horizontal gene transfer (HGT), or the transfer of genetic material from an organism to another which is not a direct descendant, is well-known in bacteria,where it plays a major role in evolution, but has historically been regarded as very rare in the majority of eukaryotes, especially in metazoans. Recently, however,various examples of HGT among animals have been described,suggesting that this mechanism might play a role in their evolution as well and new ways organisms can use to adapt to new environments. I will summarise recent findings and discuss possible evolutionary consequences of this novel mechanism of “gene sharing”.


Long-term, in-water sea turtle monitoring at Amvrakikos Gulf, Greece: an overview and future directions

Dr Alan Rees, ARCHELON / University of Exeter

Friday 22 March 2019

Loggerhead sea turtles are long-lived slow to mature wide-ranging marine reptiles that have established breeding aggregations around the eastern Mediterranean. Most turtle research in the region is conducted on adult female turtles as they can readily be encountered nesting on specific beaches during the summer months. There is a relative lack of information on growth rates, size and age at maturity, and sex ratios at different life stages; data vital for successful demographic population modelling. But these data can only be obtained from catching turtles at sea.

Since 2002 we have been running an in-water capture-mark-recapture project in an important loggerhead foraging and over wintering site in Amvrakikos Gulf, Greece. The project has provided data on the demographics and biology of the population. From simple techniques using tape measures and numbered metal tags to advanced DNA analysis and satellite tracking, we have been able to characterise the population and place its importance in a regional context.

My talk will present the most important biological findings from this almost two-decade long project, covering residency, growth, sexual dimorphism and linkages to the various nesting areas across the region and briefly outline the future evolution our study with the use of drones to assess the turtles’ distribution in the Gulf and techniques to assess the turtles’ diet.

Coral health and immunity in the Anthropocene

Dr Caroline Palmer, Visiting Researcher, University of Plymouth

Friday 1 March 2019

Coral reefs are dying globally because climate change is causing seas to become warmer and more acidic. Coral reefs support a quarter of marine life and feed millions of people, and to save them we need to rapidly apply new thinking and new technologies. Recently, coral restoration projects have proliferated and efforts to engineer more tolerant corals have been expedited. However, what aspects of a coral’s biology drives tolerance is still unclear, and likely highly complex. Until we have a better understanding of coral health and what maintains it, restoration efforts are likely to be somewhat ineffective.

Corals have immune systems and, like us, when they have low immunity they are more likely to get sick and die, while those with high immunity can better survive. This means that if we can find ways to accurately measure key aspects of coral immunity,we can find, or engineer, the corals most likely to survive future climate extremes, and then use them for more successful restoration projects. Taking an immunological approach to coral health means that a usable tool -a Coral Health Assay -can be developed and applied globally by conservation area managers, scientists and even tourism operators to measure the health of their reef corals.

“Seeking Survivors”is a collaborative project based in the UK and Costa Rica, working to determine how coral immunity underpins tolerance to extreme events. By monitoring and measuring multiple coral species through space and time, we are working towards developing a Coral Health Assay.

EmbryoPhenomics: An approach to capturing the dynamic biological process of development

Dr Oliver Tills , University of Plymouth

Friday 15 February 2019

Development, the process of animals putting themselves together, is a fundamental biological process integral to life. What’s more, variation in development is in large part responsible for the biodiversity of planet Earth. The development of complex multicellular organisms from just a single cell is complex and incredibly dynamic - temporally, spatially and functionally, and this presents considerable opportunity, but also challenge, for research. Consequently, we typically know far less about embryos or larvae than the adults that they develop into. This is in large part due to a lack of appropriate technologies for quantifying the process of development and this limitation has been identified as a serious bottleneck in biology. A central theme of my research is developing and applying technologies that address this limitation and provide a unique view of the dynamic process of development.

During this seminar I will i) introduce EmbryoPhenomics - a high-throughput screening technology for aquatic embryos developed at the University of Plymouth; ii) describe the journey of developing open-source hardware and software; iii) present data detailing the multifaceted response of embryos to environmental stress; and iv) describe current research directions including simulating natural, fluctuating, environments in the laboratory and training deep learning models to interrogating the vast datasets produced by EmbryoPhenomics.


Science Based Support for the Formation of a UNEP Regional Sea Ecosystem Based Marine Policy (the Barcelona Convention)

Dr Maria Caparis, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Secretariat for the Barcelona Convention

Friday 1 February 2019

Maria did a BSc in Biological Sciences at Westfield College, University of London and a PhD in Marine Biology supervised by Professor Philip Rainbow at Queen Mary College University of London. Since 1992, she has worked on a contract basis as an expert marine consultant at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Secretariat for the Barcelona Convention, based in Athens, Greece. Her focus has been on the science-based development of sustainable marine policy.

Maria has been a focal point at the UNEP Regional Mediterranean Pollution Assessment and Control Component. She has provided expert opinion at the European Commission Working Groups for the implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and has evaluated research project funding proposals under the Framework Programmes for Research and Technological Development of the European Commission. She has delivered research projects for the Scientific and Technological Options Assessment (STOA) of the European Parliament.

Understanding limits to adaptation in response to environmental change

Dr Jon Bridle, University of Bristol

Friday 14 December 2018

The rate of local adaptation along an ecological gradient, and therefore the width of a species’ ecological niche, is determined by three main parameters: (1) the rate of change of the environment from the organism’s perspective; (2) the strength of local selection and (3) the amount of genetic variation in fitness. However, we lack empirical estimates of all of these parameters under field conditions. In addition, environmental variance, and the plastic responses of genotypes to this variance, will affect all three of these parameters, and means that laboratory estimates of fitness and genetic variance will fail to predict adaptive responses in the wild. I will present data from our experiments to test the effects of ecological change on evolutionary responses in insects and flowering plants, and our explorations of how these responses may be affected by the way that genotypes are sensitive to their environment. 


The Eastern Pacific (EP) coast as a natural transect of the globe for macroecology and biogeography research

Dr Phillip Fenberg, University of Southampton

Friday 30 November 2018

The formation and maintenance of biogeographic regions and the latitudinal gradient of species richness are thought to be influenced, in part, by spatial distribution of physical habitat. But the importance of the distribution of physical habitat (habitat continuity) in relation to other factors for shaping richness gradients and delimiting biogeographic regions has not been empirically well established. In this talk, I present new research that shows the biogeographic edges between tropical and extratropical regions (including a subtropical province) and the richness gradient of rocky shore gastropods along the eastern Pacific coast (>90º of latitude and 23,000 km) are best predicted by habitat continuity and temperature. Rocky shore habitat continuity is generally low within tropical/subtropical regions (compared to extratropical regions), particularly at biogeographic boundaries where steep richness gradients occur. Regions of high rocky shore habitat continuity are located towards the centres of biogeographic regions where species turnover tends to be relatively low. I will also present some preliminary data from recent field trips to Baja California to investigate potential geographic range shifts at the northern biogeographic edge of the tropics.


Seabed marine life: what is where and how does it ‘work’?

Dr Keith Hiscock, Marine Biological Association, Author of: ‘Exploring Britain’s Hidden World: a Natural History of Seabed Habitats’

Friday 16 November 2018

Marine biologists have been sampling seabed habitats for over 200 years with a significant part of that work out of Plymouth. Understanding what is where and why it is there has moved from using primitive dredges, through surveys using diving and remote imaging to, now, robots. There are structured ways of undertaking surveys and presenting their results especially for the benefit of marine environmental protection and management. The presentation will take the audience swiftly through history and dwell on the tools that we have now. Images will be selected to inform, excite and surprise the audience.


Oxygen, for better or for worse

Dr John Moody, University of Plymouth

Friday 2 November 2018

Almost all of my research career has involved the biochemistry of oxygen in some way or other and its impacts on living things, both the positive effects, e.g. through its involvement in aerobic energy metabolism, or the negative aspects through its toxic effects, i.e. oxidative damage. In this seminar, I will be reviewing both aspects of my research, starting with my work before coming to Plymouth on a key enzyme for almost all aerobic organisms, cytochrome-c oxidase; then moving on to look at my work at Plymouth on oxidative stress, in both biomedicine and in environmental toxicology; and finally looking forward to work I am currently engaged in, in the area of comparative biochemistry in invertebrates.


Good things come in small packages: dwarfing the oil palm crop

Professor Jerry Roberts, University of Plymouth

Friday 26 October 2018

The manipulation of plant architecture in annual crops and perennial fruit trees has proved of great benefit to increase yield by partitioning resources from the vegetative to the reproductive components. This has been achieved by either the application of growth retarding chemicals or, more effectively, by the breeding of material with reduced stature. The genetic basis of the dwarfing phenomenon in cereals has been identified as the consequence of either a reduction in the biosynthesis or signalling of the plant growth regulator gibberellin (GA). This hormone plays a key role in regulating the elongation of stem tissues but a reduction in its concentration or action does not normally compromise fruit or seed development. The focus of this presentation is to explore the opportunities for attenuating oil palm architecture by manipulating endogenous gibberellins levels and to determine whether GA mutants are available in the current germplasm. With the oil palm genome sequence being available it is possible to  identify putative gene candidates that might contribute to the regulation of crop architecture. Analysis of the expression of some of these genes in dwarf oil palm material is presented together with preliminary evidence that plant stature may be associated with attenuated levels of key gibberellins. Opportunities for the possible introduction of novel dwarf germplasm into the oil palm industry are discussed.


Sharks in the surf zone: how internal waves shape predator-prey interactions over seamounts

Dr Phillip Hosegood, University of Plymouth

Friday 5 October 2018

Oceanic seamounts are well known as being hotspots of biodiversity and biomass abundance to the extent that many of them worldwide have been fished to the point of ecosystem collapse. Despite our readiness to exploit seamount resources, our scientific understanding of precisely why such features attract multiple trophic levels throughout the marine ecosystem is lacking. Specifically, usually-invoked mechanisms suggest a bottom-up approach whereby nutrient-rich water from depth is upwelled over seamount summits and retained there by the circulation arising from what are called ‘Taylor columns’. As the theory goes, the nutrients sustain elevated phytoplankton growth, which itself is trapped within the Taylor column, which then sustains zooplankton and upwards to fish and eventually sharks. Virtually no observational evidence exists for such features, however, leaving us with little understanding of how we might conserve the species that reside over seamounts. Here, results are presented from two cruises to the Chagos Archipelago in the central Indian Ocean where dense aggregations of silver tip sharks are routinely observed over the drop-off surrounding Sandes Seamount. Our observations sought to identify the physical mechanisms that might explain why the sharks not just aggregate in the first place but do so over the drop off only rather than over the entire summit. 

We demonstrate that the likely mechanism is the generation of internal lee waves that, due to the seamount dimensions, are concentrated over the drop off and, due to the turbulence they generate, we propose cause fish to school. The schooling fish would increase foraging success rates and enables a better understanding of why top predators aggregate over abrupt topographic features. We further highlight how the fish population is sustained in the first place by zooplankton trapped over the summit during daytime when they would otherwise travel vertically to the Deep Scattering Layer.