The main purpose of this project is to facilitate acquisition and use of a state-of-the-art flow cytometer with imaging and fluorescence triggering capabilities, which will be located at the University of Mississippi (UM), Department of Biology. The Flow Cytometer and Microscope, or FlowCAM, utilizes a high resolution CCD camera, multiple objectives, and image analysis software to allow enumeration, measurement, and image capture of individual suspended organic and inorganic particles ranging from 0.002 to 2 millimeters in size. This instrument was designed for plankton assessment, but it can be used for any fluid-suspended particle in this size range. Therefore, in addition to studies in plankton ecology, planned uses of the instrument include research in symbiosis, mycology, biogeochemistry, hydrology, and wildlife biology. The key features of the FlowCAM are an unprecedented speed of sample processing (up to 10,000 particles per minute) and production of a digital reference image for each particle. The processing speed improves statistical robustness of community data, and the automation leads to a significant reduction in human bias in plankton identification and enumeration. As microscope-based community analysis is often the limiting factor in plankton research, this instrument will allow the investigators to address ecologically relevant questions at a spatial and temporal scale not before possible, including real-time monitoring of plankton dynamics such as aquatic pollution events and harmful algal blooms. A web-based data access portal will enable remote users to quickly receive data from samples sent to UM.
Many scientific questions in biology could be more rapidly and efficiently answered if scientists could easily identify, count, and document microscopic objects such as unicellular algae, fungal spores, and protozoan parasites; the FlowCAM will do just that. The multi-disciplinary nature of this instrument will encourage use by a diverse group of scientists, greatly expand UM existing research and training capabilities, and encourage collaborations among researchers across the region. Projects supported by the instrument will include assessing algal roles in ecosystem services such as nutrient retention in agriculturally influenced streams; measuring the impact of the invasive, planktivorous Asian carp on the food resources of native fish species in the Mississippi River Basin; relating parasite load to mate choice in wild turkeys; understanding symbiotic relationships and co-evolution in mycorrhizal and coral-algal symbioses; and understanding survival and distribution patterns of native and invasive mussel larvae. Image databases will be made accessible for public use through Morphbank, an open web database of biological images, and detailed community databases shared through the Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity. The PIs will provide educational demonstrations and research opportunities for a high school-to-college summer bridge program designed to attract minority students to the fields of math, science, and engineering. At the university level, the instrument will be integrated into several laboratory-based courses (Aquatic Biology, Principles of Microbiology, Limnological Methods) and will be used in faculty-supervised independent research projects (e.g., Directed Study in Biological Sciences, summer REU programs). Research data will be disseminated in the primary scientific literature.
This NSF Major Research Instrumentation award enabled the University of Mississippi to purchase a Fluid Dynamics FlowCam. This instrument is used for automated quantification and analysis of the composition and structure of small particles. It can be used with pure substances, containing only one kind of particle, or with substances consisting of a mixture of different kinds of particles. The instrument now resides in a supervised laboratory in the Department of Biology, where it is used principally for detailed analysis of microbial and plankton community structure in aquatic environments. To date, the FlowCam has contributed to three major and on-going research projects, as described below: 1. Determination of plankton community structure and biogeographic patterns in the lower Mississippi River. This is a collaborative project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center. The purpose of the project is to evaluate the role of water management strategies on food web structure and ecological processes in the Mississippi River and river floodplain. 2. Determination of the effects of environmental stress on the health of marine gorgonian corals. The purpose of this project is to investigate the role of various environmental stressors (for example, thermal stress) on health of corals and their subsequent recovery from stress. This project has been largely conducted in the Caribbean as part of an international research collaboration. 3. Analysis of community structure of algae in large reservoirs in North Mississippi. The purpose of this project is to determine the relationship of environmental condition and algal community structure in large impoundments used for water control, recreation, and fishing. As algae are at the base of the food web in large reservoir systems, this research is important for understanding their role in animal production and their use in water quality assessment. The FlowCam has also been critical in training of new research scientists and educators, and at least five graduate students at the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University have utilized the FlowCam in their research. The NSF-funded FlowCam has catalyzed research productivity in our laboratories, and we anticipate it will continue to be a useful tool for use in new research projects and environmental education in the region.