Campus: Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo -- May 30, 2000

Cal Poly Biologist Wins Grant to Study Luminous Sea Organisms

The Office of Naval Research has granted Cal Poly Biological Sciences Professor Mark Moline $453,000 to study marine organisms that glow blue at night.

A large portion of the grant will pay for a torpedo-like underwater vehicle that can navigate a pre-programmed path to gather data on the light put out by the microscopic plants, called phytoplankton. The vehicle is being built by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, while the instrument that will measure the light will be built at UCSB.

The grant will also be used to buy lab equipment and support undergraduates and graduate students working in Moline's laboratory.

The microorganisms glow, or luminesce, through a process similar to what makes fireflies light up, Moline said. The Navy is interested because the bioluminescence makes objects such as submarines visible at night.

One project goal is to be able to predict where and when the luminescence will occur and how intense it will be. To make those predictions, Moline will need to identify and quantify the basic biological mechanisms -- nutrients, mixing and light, for example -- that determine the distribution of the organisms.

Moline will collect data in nearshore waters off the coast of New Jersey and in the Santa Barbara Channel in conjunction with oceanography programs being conducted by Cal Poly with Rutgers University and UCSB.

Moline's grant was one of 26 awarded nationwide under the Office of Naval Research's 2000 Young Investigator Program. Moline, 35, was one of 178 researchers who competed in the program. To be eligible, a faculty member must have received a doctorate or equivalent within the last five years. Moline earned his doctorate in 1996 from UCSB and joined the Cal Poly faculty in 1998.

The Navy awards its research grants not just on the merits of new proposals but also for the quality of previous work and the support that the researchers' universities provide. Moline's prior work also has focused on marine phytoplankton, the basic food source that fuels the marine food chain. He has worked in the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica.

This is Moline's second "new investigator" grant. His first was from NASA in 1999 for using satellite sensors to map a large-scale view of phytoplankton distribution.

Changes in the phytoplankton community affect all organisms that directly or indirectly feed on them, from anchovies to the gray whale. Some marine phytoplankton produce toxins, and blooms of the organisms, known as red tides, can harm human health, fisheries and tourism.

Moline has also conducted research on oysters and striped bass and led a three-year project on floodplain ecology along the Amazon River in Brazil.

Dean of Science and Mathematics Phil Bailey said research such as Moline's helps the college give undergraduates a better education. Besides bringing in money and other resources, it involves students directly in discovery.

"Mark is doing world-class research in partnership with our students," Bailey said. "This represents a very special type of teaching and learning that stimulates the students' curiosity, imagination and independent thinking abilities."

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