While David and I went on the urchin/crab collection expedition in Panama earlier this year, we had two undergraduate students from UC Davis starting a project in the Eisen group. Amy Wen and Jolie Lobrutto are interested in learning more about the bacteria that are growing inside urchins and porcelain crabs.
Originally, we planned to bring tissues back from Panama for them to dissect and screen for microbes. However, permit issues prohibited this endeavor. Instead, we decided to focus on urchins and crabs in California. Eric Sanford, a collaborator at UC Davis who is a group leader at Bodega Bay and using urchins as a model species provided us a specimen from the lab and another one from the field. Amy and Jolie dissected them while David and I were lost in Panama.
A few weeks ago I teamed up with Jonathon Stillman, a professor at San Francisco State University & UC Berkeley, and an expert on porcelain crab physiology. He had a collection trip scheduled to look for different species of Porcellanidae at Fort Ross. The tides were low and we were able to collect a good assortment of four different species. Amy and Jolie could not join us because the low tide chart coincided with exams. Nonetheless, they could spare some time to come to the lab and culture bacteria from the new specimens. Amy and Jolie are now experts on the culturing of host-associated bacteria. Soon they will learn how to identify the bugs using Sanger sequencing.
We are curious to learn more about which bacteria they found on urchins and porcelain crabs in California!
On the way to the lab in the morning I bought presents for my family at the Mercado de Artesanias. At the lab I picked the last slow growing colonies and finished my DNA extractions. Alexandra joined me for the last round and I taught her how to use the Zymo DNA Mini Kit. She will continue collecting geminate species and their associated bacteria.
In the late afternoon, Haris quickly came to say goodbye. I felt welcome here and I am grateful for a very productive time.
Finally, in the evening I took the time to meet an old friend and his lovely wife for a good dinner.
Early tomorrow morning I am flying back to California. Once I am back in my office I will edit the video recordings I took during fieldwork and add a few good shots to the photo gallery. Stay tuned!
No post yesterday because I was doing DNA extractions. I am spending more or less 24h in the lab. The bugs are growing and I became painfully aware of the large sample size of crab tissues we have! I think I can extract DNA out of them all and that keeps me going. During the day I meet other lab rats and during the night cockroaches the size of guinea pigs.
Today I took my first break and went out for lunch with Matthieu Leray. We had a lot to discuss. He is an excellent marine ecologist.
It looks like this trip will work out! This was only possible thanks to a lot of helpful people. I will try to mention a few: There was David Coil who joined me for this adventure. Harilaos Lessios and Jarrod Scott who helped us plan it. Jamie Blair, Jarrod’s esposa who figured out a lot of the logistics. Bill Wcislo and Jonathan Eisen who covered our backs and got us out of the swamp a couple of times. The mysterious customs broker and Paola Galgani who went to talk to the clerks at the airport and who succeeded in releasing the baggage from quarantine. Marcos Ramos, who delivered the suitcases 3min before we had to check-in for our flight to Bocas del Toro. Taisha Parris, Aristoteles Villegas, Laura Geyer, Vilma Fernandez, Urania Gonzales and Plinio Gondola, who handled all the administrative work at the different STRI stations and made me go through the lab security training THREE times. Deyvis Gonzales and Heather who navigated the STRI boats to our different known and unknown sampling locations. And Alexandra Hiller, my invaluable guide on the porcelain hunt.
At this point, I also want to mention Nino Wilkins and Tania Wyss who worked on the Spanish translations of our CVs, STRI application permit and Panamanian collection permit. And our respective spouses Isabelle Henry and Donny who took care of our families while we took off.
This is a large group of people that were involved in making this trip happen. And it is just the beginning of the project…
We collected host-associated microbes of urchins and porcelain crabs from both sides of the istmo and made them grow on different media. Now we have to evaluate our results and see if we can increase the catalogue of microbes associated with geminate species.
Today we drove from Las Lajas back to Panama City. A very contrasting experience! From nature back into civilization. Alexandra and I talked about science and the next steps of our collaboration. The drive took about 5h and I had some time to think about my personal experience of Panama. It was a very valuable experience to live in Las Lajas and spend time with the local fishermen of Remedios.
Remedios is a small village with its own port and a fish factory. Our captain told us a little bit about his life. He learned how to fish from his father who had learned it from his father. He remembers that there were lots of fish, turtles and sharks in the bay when he was a boy. But now they are all gone. He started to run a transport logistics company because he did not earn enough to support a family as a fisherman anymore. The government put many restrictions on fishing. Some species are protected, others have specific length requirements or can only be caught during a few months of the year. Fishermen don’t always understand these rules and are angry at the environmental offices. He says it is not his fault that all the fish are gone.
The men who are still making a living from fishing sell their products to international companies, such as for example Costco’s. Maria, our host who runs Casa Laguna B&B once drove to Remedios to buy fresh fish for her business. However, that day they were out of fish because the fish had been sold. Trucks pick them up in the morning and by the evening these fish are already in New York. What is an expensive fish at an American restaurant only gave a few cents to the Panamanian fisherman who caught it. This opens my eyes about my own consumerism. Especially in the Bay area of San Francisco where I live you can find high quality food from all over the world. It does not say how much the producer got for it and how many miles it had traveled. There is no information on how much oil was burnt for packaging and transport and in how much waste this resulted. I will try to think twice before I buy groceries when I return. And I will talk to my children about it. Most of the producers are just trying to survive every day. It is the rich consumers who can make the difference by making an educated choice.
Another important point to discuss with my children is our plastic waste. I have seen it every day here in Panama. Even on the remote Islas Secas there is plastic trash. My mom told me that there were no plastic bags at grocery stores when she was a child. Now they are everywhere – in just one generation. In stores, on the beach and in the ocean. This might need a strong re-thinking, too.
These field trips are not only very productive for research. They usually also give me the time and distance to reconsider life and what we are here for.
Once we arrived in the city, Alexandra dropped me off at the STRI station on the island of Naos. Here I am now. I will start the first extractions tonight. The centrifuge behind me is begging for it.
Today was not much different from yesterday with the exception that I finished lab work early: at 21:30 already! We started at 6:30, spent most of the day collecting at Islas Secas and came back in the afternoon for dissecting crabs and culturing bacteria. Most of the dilutions are growing well! Even the ones in the anaerobic chambers.
Alexandra and I decided to drive back to Panama City tomorrow morning. We collected a lot. I just typed 228 samples for microbiome analysis into the google sheet, including 13 different porcelain crab species and three different tissues. At the moment there are 45 plates harboring tissue samples for bacteria and 50 bacterial cultures in glycerol. This means that I will have to finish a lot of lab work during the next couple of days. Every extra day counts. I am looking forward to enjoying the luxury that comes with a real molecular genetic laboratory at the STRI facility in Naos.
Another long day. Maybe the longest so far. We had to leave the hostel at 6:30. Our host’s mother extra got up and brewed us some strong Italian coffee. Such a lovely lady!
We hired a local fisherman to bring us out to the Archipelago de Islas Secas. The boat ride took almost 1.5h: first down a river along the mangroves and then out into the open ocean. We tried hard to spot a crocodile but they hid too well. Here at the Pacific side of the isthmus we depend on the tides. We can only find porcelain crabs during deep low tides. This gives us around 2h to find the crabs! The marine life around Islas Secas is amazing! I needed a lot of self discipline not to get distracted by the schools of fish passing by and the moray eels looking out of their holes. What a pity that David was not with us. I was accompanied by some large beauties. I worked with my full commitment, regardless of scratches and waves. For the first hour I did not find anything. However, then I figured it out and started finding them.
On the way back to the fisherman’s village we noticed some huge houses and development in the area. This place is unique with regard to its pristine nature and wilderness. People live in small villages in colorful houses. Life is simple and sufficient. Many families have chickens, a few cows and pigs. However, now it looks like they are selling their land to turn it into cash. Many buyers are rich international investors who want to develop the area, build large hotels and make money with all-inclusive resorts. Moreover, there is a law in Panama that makes it easier to get a residence permit if you buy real estate. This is not a good development for the local flora and fauna, including humans.
Like yesterday, I immediately started processing samples and culturing bacteria when we came back to the hostel. I only took a quick break for the sunset at the longest beach in Panama, 5min by (bare-) foot from the hostel.
The bugs are growing well. I hope I can isolate them successfully.
I was particularly pleased to find P. haigae today, named after Janet Haig a pioneer in porcelain crab research! As a tribute I will browse in the Reports of the Lund University Chile Expedition 1948-49 (link). In this report, Haig describes crustaceans that they found during their expedition (titles in Swedish, text in English and Spanish). I wonder how collection permits were regulated in South America during that time.
After a rich breakfast we drove to Playa Hermosa to check out some classic tide pools. Right on time, at low tide, we started searching. And we found! A lot. Two hours later we were both smiling and feeling accomplished. I guessed four different species in my little collection tank. Without a break we drove straight to the port to meet a fisherman who will bring us to las Islas Secas tomorrow morning. Google map on Alexandra’s iPhone was confused and led us for 10km on a dirt road through several cattle gates and private properties until we hit a pig transport. The driver yelled at us to turn around. With a bit of luck we finally ended up in the right village and talked to the fisherman and his buddies. Apparently it is going to be very rough tomorrow. Better no breakfast…
Back at the hostel I started making dilution streaks of our cultures, sampling them for DNA extractions and storing them for long-term in glycerol. This was followed by dissections of the new crabs and incubations of their fresh tissues. We are far from done tonight. Some species are so similar that Alexandra has to use a microscope and count the hairs on their legs to figure out who they are. This takes time!
I am going back to dissecting little porcelain crabs now…
Today was a successful journey. It all started waiting in line for the ferry at 7:30. We were the first in line. However, when the ferry arrived they let other trucks embark first. I had to witness Alexandra using the full spectrum of the Spanish language before they would let us on the ferry. We would embark but then they would send us back and forth until they decided where we could finally stay for the passage. It was chaos and I was happy to travel with somebody who knows how to communicate. The ride went smoothly. On the other side we hurried to get up to the cloudy mountains. Although we experienced heavy rain and thick fog, everything went very well. Most of the ride was like a dream for me – I fell asleep several times. Sorry for not being a good co-pilot, Alexandra! I was simply too exhausted after everything we experienced during the first ten days here. This speaks for your driving skills. I absolutely trusted you. When I finally woke up we were already in the David area.
After driving for hours through the fog, rainforest, a surreal 3 months young highway (new Panamerican highway), and the touristy but quiet area of Las Lajas we made it to the hostel. We got a flat tire. Of course! So we exchanged tires in the heat being watched by 8 year old Eric, a knowledgeable local. His grandma offered her onion cutting board as a base for the gato (vehicle lifting tool). After this task was completed we drove back towards David looking for a gas station to fix the broken tire. We found a super helpful mechanic who sent us to the store (el chino – the politically incorrect way of calling supermarkets mostly run by Chinese here) to get a new tire and fixed it for us right away. The local people here are super friendly!
Right before it got dark we made it to the hostel [Casa Laguna Bed & Breakfast ]. A wonderful place! It is one of the only places in the area that meets all of our research requirements (space, fridge and freezer!). The hostel is run by an Italian couple. At the moment, her mother is visiting from Italy. When we mentioned that we were very hungry, the mother offered to cook us pasta for dinner, freshly imported from Italy with red wine and Turkish side dishes from the neighbor. It was fantastic. This is definitely not the rule for field biologists! I had been starving since the first night at Bocas del Toro… Alexandra and I enjoyed the meal on the porch talking about family and politics. The aftermath of a super blue blood snow moon eclipse was our only but wonderful light out there.
(no photos today because I am writing this post on my cell phone with Panamanian SIM card – I will add the photos later). (Note from David: Laetitia texted me some pictures and I added them, as well as a couple from my not-working-today below).