A former ballet dancer makes a 10,000-mile journey in search of oyster microbes
Andrea Unzueta-Martinez lights up when she talks about the tiny creatures that dominate our lives.
Unzueta-Martinez, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center, spent three months at the Port Stephens Fisheries Institute raising oyster larvae to try and figure out how they acquire their microbiome.
The term refers to the billions of microscopic colonists that inhabit every living creature. Even your own body is teeming with bacteria, viruses, fungi, and archaea—they make up more than half of your cells.
“They have such a huge impact on the world around them and to animal health,” she said. “I think it’s incredible how much power they have.”
“Like, we are only able to digest our food because of the bacteria in our stomachs—that’s how much we need them.”
Unzueta-Martinez’s research examines fundamental questions about where oysters get their microbiome from—the environment or from their parents? In New South Wales, oysters have seen a variety of mass mortality events due to disease and environmental degradation. The industry is keen to see if probiotics can help make oysters more resilient, or if there are other ways to control the microbiome in the larvae so they can better fight disease and grow faster.
The 26-year-old arrived at the institute in January, and lived in a bunkhouse on site, surrounded by bushland on the stunning North Coast of New South Wales, about two and a half hours outside of Sydney.
The institute is all concrete and industrial noise, dotted with microscopes and filled with plastic tanks to grow sea creatures. One room looks for all the world like a crazed scientist’s laboratory with rows of glass jars, filled with liquid growing algae in a range of colors, bubbling away.
The trip was funded via a National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide. It’s incredibly competitive to get one, with fewer than 5 percent of applications are successful—and you only get one shot to apply.
Read more on Northeastern Global News.
Author: Andrew Fenton-contributor