Hello Technical Difficulty, Meet Opportunity

How many fields of work can you think of where a major technical difficulty can lead to new, exciting opportunities? If the prospect of potential disasters transforming into successes appeals to you, I suggest considering a career in experimental biology.

Often when something goes wrong at work – especially when the devices we’re using malfunction – all progress comes to a halt until systems are rebooted or IT is called to the rescue. For our marine biology lab, an initially bad situation actually resulted in some pretty interesting findings!

In early October we set out to collect samples of fouling communities from two sites in the Vancouver Area that were known to have waters that differed in saltiness. Fouling communities are all of those animals you see on the sides of docks, or on other man-made marine structures, things like mussels, starfish, and barnacles are usually present in them, just to name a few. Armed with handfuls of these fouling communities, we set out back to the lab to test how these organisms fair under changes in salinity. Little did we know, over the week of the experimental period, our lab equipment decided to take the experiment in a new direction.

Biofouling communities can grow on various structures such as boats, buoys, and docks. (Photo credit unknown)

Biofouling communities can grow on various structures such as boats, buoys, and docks.

At some point over the last two days of our experiment, the machine feeding oxygen into our tanks decided it was fed up with the experiment and vibrated right off the table, bringing the air hose with it. Animals living in the ocean need oxygen just as much as animals living on land do and when their marine environment is suddenly lacking oxygen it can be disastrous, this type of situation even has its own term – anoxia – which literally means the absence of oxygen. This oxygen cut off could have wiped out our entire samples if it had lasted longer than two days but, luckily for us, this random event ended up giving us what I would consider the most intriguing results of the lab.

This anoxic event led us to learn that the mortality of certain organisms within fouling communities (in this case mussels), depended on both which site they originally came from and on which salinity they were kept in for the week. Meaning that when kept in a salty experimental environment over the week, mussels from a fresher source environment were more likely to die and likewise, for the fresher experimental environment with mussels from a saltier source. This suggests that there are subtle differences between these populations of mussels that make them happier in the salinity they were originally found in. Pretty interesting stuff that came out of a completely random, and presumably misfortune event!

And so, if find yourself longing to study the fascinating world of marine invertebrates, prepare yourself for potential disasters and be ready to turn them into possibly unexplored studies; above all, when these disasters inevitably strike, remember the words of the late, great Douglas Adams and…

Follow THIS link for a history on possibly the most pivotal result of accidental science in human history!

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