Research Highlights

March 23, 2010

New search method nets massive energy source

Dr. John Dunbar, associate professor of geology at Baylor, and his team used a new search method of electrical resistivity to acquire geophysical data on the seafloor to find a potentially massive source of hydrocarbon energy called methane hydrate, a frozen form of natural gas, in a portion of the Gulf of Mexico. The Baylor researchers were able to provide a detailed map of where the methane hydrate is located and how deep it extends underneath the seafloor.

Dunbar and his research team injected a direct electrical current into the seafloor to measure the resistivity of the sediment beneath the seafloor. The measurement of resistivity--the ability of a material to resist conduction of electricity--showed the researchers where the methane hydrate is located. To do this, Dunbar and his team dragged a "sled"--a device with a nearly one-kilometer-long towed array--back and forth over the site, injecting the electrical current. Sediment containing methane hydrate within its pores showed higher resistivity compared to sediment containing salt water. While the measurement of resistivity has been used for some time, the method has seldom been used at such depths.

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded Dunbar more than $115,000 to continue researching the site. Dunbar and his team will cluster sensors around certain areas on the array, which will give researchers a clearer picture of how deep the methane hydrate extends and will allow them to create a three-dimensional picture of the underwater site.

An ice-like solid, methane hydrate is found beneath the seafloor in many locations across the globe, usually at depths greater than 3,000 feet. The most common place to find gas hydrate mounds in the Gulf of Mexico are along the intersections of faults with the seafloor. According to the U.S Geological Survey, the nation's methane hydrate deposits are estimated to hold a vast 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. If just 1 percent of those deposits are commercially produced, it would more than double the country's natural gas reserves.

Detecting biodiversity loss

Baylor University researchers along with ecologists from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, have developed a new method that measures the impact of human-caused environmental degradation on environmental biodiversity. The new statistical analysis method is more precise than current methods and has revealed a dramatically lower ecological "tipping point" at which species are threatened.

The researchers said a decade-old analysis widely cited by environmental professionals and policymakers suggests that it takes up to 15 percent of solid surfaces like roads or parking lots, or 20 to 30 percent developed land in a given area, before local water systems no longer sustain normal aquatic life. The new method demonstrates that aquatic life actually shows significant loss of biodiversity with only 1 to 3 percent developed land in a watershed.

"This really surprised us, but after carefully examining the data and testing the method using simulations, it became apparent that these declines were real. It certainly brings to light a strikingly strong relationship between development and degraded water quality in streams, but the mechanisms are not yet clear," said Dr. Ryan King, associate professor of biology at Baylor, who along with Dr. Matthew Baker, assistant professor of geography and environmental systems at UMBC, developed the method.

Study determines scale-tipping phosphorus level

A new Baylor University study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency has found that concentrations of phosphorus above 20 parts per billion are linked to declines in water quality and aquatic plant and animal life. The study, which is the first to utilize the new Baylor Experimental Aquatic Research (BEAR) stream facility, demonstrates with certainty that an amount of phosphorus over a certain level does indeed cause negative changes observed in many Texas streams.

"This study is the first to really link nutrient field observations to controlled experiments and allows water managers to use the research as the scientific basis for water management strategies," said Dr. Ryan King, associate professor of biology at Baylor, who led the study. "We were able to link cause and effect and show that the ecology of the streams is very sensitive to phosphorus."

The Baylor researchers collected water nutrient samples and measured algae and aquatic vegetation growth over a two-year period from 26 different streams in Texas. They compared phosphorus levels to how much algae and aquatic vegetation was present. The researchers then conducted controlled experiments at the BEAR facility by dosing the streams with various phosphorus levels.

Baylor joins national Science Education Alliance

Baylor University has been chosen by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to join the Science Education Alliance, which will engage Baylor students in scientific discovery on a national scale. The alliance means Baylor students will be offered an opportunity to be involved in scientific discovery during their first year while taking their freshmen sequence of biology.

"This new alliance will allow us to work collaboratively with faculty from all over the country and utilize tried and true methods that are known to work in relatively large groups of freshman science students," said Dr. Tamarah Adair, BS '85, MS '96, PhD '98, senior lecturer of biology at Baylor, who will be overseeing the program at the University. "This is a great opportunity for Baylor to become more active in curriculum development and involved with undergraduate research groups on the national level. This is something very different than anything we are currently doing in the department of biology in content and in scope."

The Science Education Alliance is a two-part, year-long course that enables students to make real discoveries by conducting research on bacterial viruses called phage. In the first term, students isolate phage from locally collected environmental samples. Given the diversity of these viruses, each one is almost certain to be unique, so the students get to name their newly identified life form. They then spend the rest of the term purifying and characterizing their phage and extracting its DNA. Between terms, the purified DNA is sent to the Joint Genome Institute-Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where it is sequenced. In the second term, the students receive files containing their isolated phage's DNA sequence. The students then use bioinformatics tools to analyze and annotate the genomes from their phage.

Currently, 24 large universities and small colleges participate in the Science Education Alliance, and Baylor will be one of 12 new schools to join with the first course starting in fall 2010.