December 1, 2003
Kenneth Bruland appointed to Ida Benson Lynn
Endowed Chair in Ocean Health
By Tim Stephens
Professor of ocean sciences Kenneth Bruland has spent more than 25 years
studying the chemistry of the ocean and the ways in which trace amounts
of certain elements influence marine ecosystems.
Professor of ocean sciences Ken Bruland on the research vessel
Kilo Moana during an expedition to the Bering Sea last
summer Photo: Chris Best
Bruland was a pioneer in the development of the demanding techniques
needed to measure trace elements in seawater. His appointment in November
to the Ida Benson Lynn Endowed Chair in Ocean Health recognizes Bruland's
important contributions in this area and provides support for his ongoing
The Ida Benson Lynn Endowed Chair in Ocean Health was established in
1998 and is intended for an outstanding scholar with research interests
in the area of ocean health. Bruland's five-year appointment to the
chair brings with it $15,000 per year to support his teaching, public
service, and research, and an additional $40,000 to support graduate
Bruland said he has several ideas for using the funds that come with
the endowed chair.
"I am especially excited about the idea of being able to use this
endowment to help recruit and support outstanding graduate students,"
With fellowship support from the endowment, rather than being funded
under a specific research grant, the graduate students will have more
flexibility to collaborate with other faculty and to undertake interdisciplinary
projects, Bruland said.
"I work with other marine science faculty who are more biologically
oriented, while I provide the expertise in ocean chemistry, and I'd
like to see students working in areas that bridge those different disciplines,"
Bruland said he would use some of the funds from the endowment to make
his research accessible to a wider audience through articles, lectures,
and web sites. He also has plans to develop a display on his research
for the Seymour Marine Discovery Center.
Much of Bruland's current research focuses on the chemical factors that
allow extensive blooms of single-celled algae, or phytoplankton, to
occur in coastal waters. Periodic algal blooms provide the food that
ultimately supports productive fisheries and abundant marine life in
places like Monterey Bay. Major nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus
are key factors in stimulating algal blooms, but trace elements such
as iron and zinc also play an important role as micronutrients, Bruland
said. In many parts of the ocean, for example, the availability of iron
is the limiting factor that determines the abundance of phytoplankton.
By converting sunlight into food energy, phytoplankton provide most
of the "primary production" at the base of the marine food
chain. In that sense, they are the foundation on which healthy marine
ecosystems are built. But there is a dark side to phytoplankton, too--they
sometimes produce harmful toxins such as domoic acid. Harmful algal
blooms can poison marine birds and mammals, and can even pose a health
threat to humans. Bruland's research suggests that trace metals such
as iron and copper may play a role in the production of algal toxins.
"In most cases, the algal blooms are good things that help make
this region so productive. But sometimes the organisms are harmful,
so we're trying to understand what factors trigger the toxin production,"
Some trace metals themselves can be toxic to phytoplankton if present
in high concentrations. Copper, for example, is a potentially toxic
trace metal that is a significant contaminant in some coastal environments,
including San Francisco Bay. But the toxicity of copper depends on its
chemical form, Bruland said. He and his students have found that copper
in San Francisco Bay is primarily bound to organic compounds in a nontoxic
form. They are currently studying the sources and characteristics of
these copper-binding organic compounds.
There may be a connection between the toxicity of trace metals such
as copper and the production of toxic compounds by certain algae. Bruland's
group has found that the algal toxin domoic acid, which causes amnesic
shellfish poisoning in humans, binds both iron and copper in ways that
affect their biological availability--detoxifying the copper and making
iron, an essential micronutrient, more available. This suggests a physiological
role for domoic acid in the species of algae that produce it.
"The production of domoic acid may be triggered when a bloom of
this species is stressed by either copper toxicity or iron limitation,"
Bruland's research includes investigations of how trace metals influence
the growth of phytoplankton in a wide range of ocean environments. During
the summer of 2003, he was chief scientist on a major research expedition
to the Bering Sea to investigate the influence of trace metals on phytoplankton
productivity in the Bering Sea ecosystem. He is currently involved in
a large multidisciplinary effort to study the influence of the vast
plume of nutrient-rich water that pours out of the mouth of the Columbia
River and mixes into the coastal waters off Oregon and Washington.
Research cruises to study the Columbia River plume are planned for the
next three summers, and Bruland plans to develop a web site where he
and his coworkers can post reports from the field during the cruises.
"Most of my research gets published in specialized journals, and
I'd like to reach out to more general audiences and spread the word
about what we're doing. A web site is one way for us to do that,"
Bruland is the second faculty member to hold the Ida Benson Lynn Endowed
Chair in Ocean Health, succeeding Terrie Williams, professor of ecology
and evolutionary biology, who held the first appointment to the chair.
Bruland received his B.A. in chemistry from Western Washington University
and his Ph.D. in oceanography from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography
at UC San Diego. He came to UCSC in 1974 as an assistant professor of
marine studies and is currently chair of the Department of Ocean Sciences.
He received the Outstanding Faculty Award for 2001-02 from the Division
of Physical and Biological Sciences in recognition of his distinguished
research career, excellence in teaching, and commitment to service.
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