Dr. Deanna Soper-Pinkelman, assistant professor of biology at the University of Dallas, has recently been tasked with assisting in taxonomically identifying a species of sea worm. The request comes from Dr. Karen Osborn of the Smithsonian Institute.
Soper said: “[Osborn and her team] are in the process of finishing up a lot of their sequencing and phylogenetic and evolutionary analysis. Once we have all of that, we put it together in a big paper, and if we’re confident of its location within the family tree, then we propose a name. And usually we’ve given that pleasure to our students. We’re not published yet. We’re still in the process of finishing up some analyses, but the manuscript is in draft form.”
Soper and her students were given this opportunity through a coincidental turn of events, beginning with the activities of National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA is a federal organization that is dedicated to ocean and atmospheric exploration and scientific work in that field. One of their missions in the office of ocean exploration is to better understand the deep oceans.
Soper said: “[The ocean] is the one environment on earth that we know the least about. We know more about the Moon and Mars than we do about the deep ocean.”
In the summer of 2020, Soper was partaking in an ROV — remotely operated underwater vehicle —project, which involved analyzing video footage off the coast of Hawaii that had been collected from late 2016 to 2017.
Soper and her associates found a sea worm that University of Hawaii biologists were unable to describe. After doing background reading on who had done work with this particular genus of worm, Soper soon discovered that Osborn had done extensive work in this field. In early July of 2020, she contacted Osborn and showed her a video clip and a picture of the organism. Osborne hypothesized that the worm was in the genus Teuthidodrilus, which is what the University of Hawaii biologists had hypothesized.
Osborn then told Soper that a few years back she had collected deep sea worm specimens that had been previously undescribed and are unknown to science. She asked Soper if she would have some students that would want to help describe and name these three species. Soper said yes and recruited two students to help start to describe the species — Emma Bergman, a senior biology major, and Maura Van Bogaert, a biology major who graduated from UD last December.
Bergman said: “I know not everyone is able to make it into a lab. Overall, I’ve been really grateful to have this project to work on. And it’s also been an opportunity for me to grow in skills that I’m now going to be able to put forward towards a job that I just accepted for after graduation. So it has been a super formative experience for me. I don’t know what I would be doing right now without doing this project.”
Bergman and Van Bogaert were tasked with making vector illustrations in Adobe Illustrator — which are meant to accompany a written description — as well as coming up with a name and scientific nomenclature for their respective specimens.
Soper said: “In a species description, two things need to take place. The first thing is that you have to, with exquisite detail, analyze anatomically, the structure of this worm and compare it to other known species. The second part to a species description is that you need genetic data.”
While Soper’s students have been dealing with the illustration process, Osborn’s laboratory technician and her lab at the Smithsonian Institute have been involved with doing the genetic sequencing work.
Soper said: “My students were taught all of the program that’s necessary to analyze and compile the genome, so they’ve been able to get some access to skills that they would not have already had access to — on top of the scientific illustration, which is also not something that anybody else here was doing. So they’ve been able to really learn many skills and gain access to methodologies that are not being performed at our institution.”
Van Bogaert illustrated two specimens and Bergman illustrated one. The two specimens illustrated by Van Bogaert are thought to be in the genus swima, while the specimen illustrated by Bergman is thought to be in the genus helmetophorus. It might even be in its own new genus.
Soper said: “You need to create scientific illustrations from pictures because when you illustrate something, it actually makes you pay attention to details that you probably would have missed otherwise. And scientific illustration also allows us to highlight certain features that are important, while perhaps getting rid of other features that are not as important.”
Soper and the team are confident that two of the specimens will be able to be named, which is a taxonomic identification of the species.
Bergman is grateful for the experience and hopes other students will look for such opportunities to help them in both their studies and their career.
“Overall, it’s been an opportunity that has been invaluable to me. And I would encourage other [students] in the biology department or [students] in general to look for those opportunities that UD offers because they’re not always publicized,” Bergman said. “But if you ask around, if you are active in looking for such opportunities, you can find some really cool things at UD that I don’t think you’d be able to find at other schools.”
For Soper, the most valuable part of being tasked with assisting in this taxonomic identification is that her students have received helpful opportunities that they might not otherwise have received.
She said: “The most important thing to me always is that students get exposure to new fields and they gain skills that can help them move forward in life. By fostering these collaborations with high level partners, it allows them to use that as leverage to get other opportunities in their career. These experiences are absolutely critical to students discerning what it is they want to do. It’s important for career discernment and it’s also important for people that do end up finding out that they want to do this thing.”
This process of taxonomic identification is coming up on the three year mark. Only time will tell what the team ends up discovering.