The Up East, Inc. Board of Trustees has approved three important new field-based research projects involving Unity College undergraduates on Allen Island, the family retreat of famed painter Andrew Wyeth.

The board will issue grants totaling nearly $45,000 for three in-depth scientific projects:

  • “The Relationship Between Morphology and Ecology of Echiniscoides sigismundi and Echiniscoides wyethi on Allen Island” by Dr. Emma Perry.

The three projects are framed by Unity College’s first-in-the-nation sustainability science focus for teaching and learning, a collaborative approach that works across academic disciplines to address the most complex, pressing environmental problems of the 21st century, including adaptation to the effects of global climate change.

“It is increasingly important that students of sustainability science get real-world experience — not only experience in data collection and analysis, but also the experience of working with faculty to develop funding proposals and research projects,” Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury said. “Up East has been a terrific partner in giving Unity College students opportunities to conduct research that matters.”

The Unity College/Up East education and research partnership was started in 2013 as a way to leverage the rich natural and cultural resources of Allen Island toward educating the next generation of sustainability science leaders and advancing solutions-oriented research through sustainability science.

The 450-acre private island located four miles off the coast of Port Clyde, Maine, has served as the focus for a dozen research projects funded by the Up East Foundation, ranging from policy development to biodiversity studies. The new round of project awards represents the fifth round of the Up East/Unity College partnership.

A spokesperson for the foundation said, “The Up East Foundation recognizes Unity College’s dedication to expanding the college’s field research and education opportunities and is pleased to help faculty and students acquire additional skills and experiences.”

“Research on Allen Island is about more than access to unique marine and island habitat, although it is certainly that,” Khoury said. “It’s about creating a new model of solutions-oriented education that puts the issue at the center. Our students and faculty are getting results that are accurate, relevant, and actionable, bringing together foundations, students, faculty in multiple disciplines in application of Unity College’s revolutionary framework of sustainability science education.”

In particular, Khoury said the Fungal Endophyte study – which will survey the biodiversity of fungi living inside seaweeds on Allen Island – could one day lead to valuable medicinal benefits.

According to Latty, a professor of botany in Unity College’s Center for Biodiversity who will help lead the study, many endophytic fungi are known to produce compounds that are antibacterial or antifungal, and therefore useful for medicinal purposes.

“We will collect seaweeds, culture their fungal endophytes, extract DNA for sequencing, and extract compounds for future study on their bioactivity,” Latty said. “Not only does this project contribute to our general knowledge of biodiversity, but these particular organisms also have the potential to exhibit bioactivity that could yield new medicines.”

This project will lead to professional scientific publications and presentations on the diversity of fungal endophytes in these seaweeds, Latty said. A photo guide of seaweed species and their endophytes will also be produced for the Up East Foundation. Additionally, new fungal isolates will be archived in a fungal repository and Unity expects to share results with a broader audience through the Maine Seaweed Council website.

The project will involve at least four students to assist in culturing fungi, DNA extraction, microscopic examination, record keeping and data analysis, and could reach other students as faculty embed these techniques and data analyses in courses at Unity College.

Batchelder, Assistant Professor of Cell Biology in the Unity College Center for Biodiversity, said the project “will contribute to our knowledge of an understudied group of organisms, the endophytes, and as such, add to our understanding of marine biodiversity.”

“Biodiversity has been identified as one of the nine planetary systems essential for sustaining human life,” Latty said. “Conserving biodiversity, and therefore surveying for biodiversity, is essential to sustainability.”

Phillippi, a Professor of Biology in the Unity College Center for Biodiversity, said Allen Island offers a great diversity of habitats for seaweeds.

The dock, sloping shores concentrated on the northern half of the island, and more dynamic, wave driven shores of the southern side all provide distinctive habitats for different varieties of Atlantic seaweeds, she said. Furthermore, Allen Island’s location within the North Atlantic Region is beneficial, since it’s an area where there has been a call for more research into the endophytic algal communities inhabiting green and red algae.

Of the other two approved projects, one is a continuation of past research funded by Up East — conducted by Dr. Perry and her students – that resulted in the discovery of a new species of tardigrades on Allen Island ‐‐ Echiniscoides wyethi. The discovery appeared prominently in scientific journals and garnered international media attention.

“This research continuation project will investigate the biology and morphology of this new  species by collecting additional specimens of these animals for SEM/TEM and DNA sequencing,” Perry said, adding that the project will contribute to the growing body of tardigrade research worldwide, which has captivated non-scientific audiences with tales of an cuddly-looking organism that can “put itself to sleep” for hundreds of years before reactivating.

The third project – “A Comprehensive Amphibian Population and Health Assessment in Wetlands on Allen Island” by Dr. Matthew Chatfield and Dr. Cheryl Frederick – “will improve understanding of the complex species assemblages and landscape‐level ecology of the Allen Island ecosystem, and measure how introduced pathogens may have encroached on isolated amphibian populations on the island,” Frederick said.

Project co-leader Chatfield, an Assistant Professor of Conservation Biology in the Unity College Center for Biodiversity, said amphibians are the most endangered of all vertebrate classes, with nearly one third threatened with extinction.

“Although there may be many possible causes for the extinction crisis, the single most acute threat to amphibian populations is the spread of introduced pathogens,” Chatfield said. “This research project will contribute to the growing body of knowledge about deadly pathogens, and will provide baseline data on species composition and disease status against which future population and disease trends may be evaluated.”

In many ways, the role of the Unity College/Up East partnership on Allen Island goes beyond the specifics of the formal research projects.

“Because of the nature of these classes, the work done there will affect the experience of every student at Unity College,” said Chief Student Success Officer Dr. Sarah Cunningham, who also has served as an assistant professor and director of the Center for Experiential and Environmental Education.

Participants also will share ideas about ways to encourage Unity College students to think deeply about sustainability, and to define their roles as environmental citizens, Cunningham said. They will also use part of their time to gather information for future reference.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016