Marine Physiology – Professor John Spicer

Prof. John Spicer
Prof. John Spicer

TEDx speaker John Spicer is a professor of Marine Zoology at Plymouth University. John has served various national and international committees, and published research papers internationally. He has also published 6 academic books. John’s research focuses on the effect that changing environmental conditions has on the physiology of marine organisms.

 

How would you describe your work to a 10yr old?

I’m interested in how all the things we’ve done to the Earth over the past 60 years have changed or altered how marine animals work. Increased water temperature, increased acidity and reduced oxygen all take their toll on marine animals, but working out exactly how and what happens is a challenge. I’m particularly interest in how these three things changing in the marine environment (oxygen, carbon dioxide and temperature) affect the development of marine animals, and how those developing animals work. As humans we gain a lot of protection from our mother’s womb as we develop from a fertilized egg to an embryo ready for birth. But many marine animals never experience such protection having to make their way in the world starting off free-living as a newly fertilized egg, without organs or complex ways of keeping your internal composition constant in the face of a changing environment. So I’m interested in how marine animals work in an ever increasingly changing world.

The final stages of scampi (Norwegian lobster - Nephrops norvegicus) larval development.
The final stages of scampi (Norwegian lobster – Nephrops norvegicus) larval development.

Why did you choose this as a profession?

I see myself as a marine biologist who is interested in how marine animals work. This interested started, as far as I remember, when I was four. My ordinary Glasgow family used to travel by train down to Millport, a small town on the Island of Millport in the Firth of Clyde for a month’s holiday by the sea. My mum used to plant me on a rock in a rockpool literally just down from the house we would stay in. There I saw amazing things – sandhoppers crawling out into air and walking upright, shrimps lying on their side and beating the water with modified limbs to oxygenate tide pool made oxygen poor by the animals and plants breathing, and sea urchins apparent breathing through their backsides as they were uncovered by the outgoing tide. And in each case I wanted to know, ‘how do they do that?’ In each case I got the chance to pursue these questions – I did my PhD on the invasion of land by beachfleas and sandhoppers, I had a research assistantship where I investigated how shrimps survive low oxygen, partly by breathing air, and I’m still investigating whether or not sea urchins can breathe through their bum which is on top of their round bodies! I wanted to know how marine animals work in the wild when I was four… and I’ve spent my adult life pursuing this key question.

 

Scientific research is full of challenges; can you share some of your biggest challenges, and how you overcame them?

My biggest challenge was to study the development of marine animals in real time in a way that I didn’t have to spend every waking moment looking down a microscope at tens of these little embryonic or larval critters. We are still trying to find ways of dealing with this but one of my ex-students, Dr Oliver Tills, who is now doing a postdoctoral project with a colleague and I, has found an automated way of ‘looking’ at developing embryos and larvae of marine animals and enabling the computer to work out how they are working – what stage are they at, when does the heart start, and how does heat beat change with time. With his system we can study the development remotely of hundreds of developing marine animals – and that is both cool and impressive.

Dr Oli Tills operating the bio-imaging system that he was instrumental in developing. This system enables examination of literally hundreds larval marine invertebrates as they develop!
Dr Oli Tills operating the bio-imaging system that he was instrumental in developing. This system enables examination of literally hundreds larval marine invertebrates as they develop!

How would you define success as a scientific researcher for you personally?

For me success is finding out how some marine animal actually works rather than just believing ‘just so’ stories about them. For example, we all face a real problem with the seas becoming less alkaline, more acidic I suppose you could say although it is unlikely they will become acid. Now this should mean that chalk (calcium carbonate) structures such as the shells of snails or the outer coverings of crabs, lobster and prawns, should dissolve, become thinner and even disappear in a warming more ‘acid’ ocean. Sounds reasonable – if you pour vinegar on chalk it fizzles and dissolves. But in fact we found that some marine animals actually make their shells even thicker as they overcompensate for dissolving in more ‘acid’ water – and pay the price for doing so in poorer growth and reproduction. Now that seems counter-intuitive and took a while for the scientific world to accept – but accept it they eventually did. For us discovering things is cool, and communicating them even when scientific opinion says the opposite is great fun  and that is my measure of success.

 

What excites you about your current projects?

My current projects are quite varied. Looking at how in the embryos of intertidal snails the development of a larval heart before the appearance of an adult heart, coincides with the production of a swimming, feeding structure called a velum, and how all these things are brought forward in development by exposing the animals to low oxygen is pretty cool. Working out why jellyfish are made of so much jelly, how tiny little crustaceans that look like clams survive low pH and high water temperatures, in today’s oceans, and in the oceans hundreds of millions of years ago, and realising that low oxygen and high temperatures are a much greater threat to marine life than increasing carbon dioxide in the oceans is fascinating, it’s fun, it excites me, and helps us understand so many aspects of our present environmental crisis.

A carpet of brittlestars. When exposed to high carbon dioxide (low pH) these animals incorporate more calcium into their shell - however the cost of this calcification is paid by compromised growth and reproduction, so the end result of acidification is still negative for these animals.
A carpet of brittlestars. When exposed to high carbon dioxide (low pH) these animals incorporate more calcium into their shell – however the cost of this calcification is paid by compromised growth and reproduction, so the end result of acidification is still negative for these animals.

What advice, that has impacted your career, would you like to share with any scientists reading this?

Get genuinely good at researching something – understanding how crabs work, how fish reproduce, how pollutants affect the growth of animals, how a deep sea fish eye works or why many females of some species, such as deep sea fish or intertidal mole crabs benefit from have tiny males stuck to their bodies. Eventually that detailed understanding, which is interesting in its own right, and will fascinate you, will become extremely ‘useful’ for something – just like our understanding of the effects of high carbon dioxide experienced naturally by animals that live in intertidal rock pools have informed our understanding of the biological consequences of global ocean acidification, or how investigation of different toxins produced by cone shells can be used to kick start a failing human heart, and give birth to a multi-million dollar pharmaceutical product. Get genuinely good at something, rather than jump around looking for the next trendy thing. The next trendy thing will eventually be what you get good at. And that is the right way round. The scientific world is full of people who hop from one trendy thing to the next, without knowledge, insight or even really any interest in the object of study. And no-one really needs that.

 

If another scientist wanted to collaborate with you, what is the best way for them to connect with you?

Come and see me – either in my lab or at a conference or a talk I’m giving. Email is good but limited – face to face contact to me says you are serious about collaboration. Science is objective in nature but personal in execution – it’s a collaborative affair, and who you collaborate with really matters- and being part of community not only separates us from lentils but also produces the very best science. No one does science perfectly but a group of scientists with different skills and interests, who work well together get further than most.

 

My thanks to John for taking time to answer these questions before he set off on a research trip to the Antarctic. I think it’s brilliant that John has been able to pursue the research questions that fascinated him as a child growing up in Glasgow. I would love to know why Jellyfish are made of so much jelly.

I loved that John’s enthusiasm for his research showed through, and that his advice to aspiring researchers is to develop an area of expertise rather than chasing the next trend. Be the trend. Find your own niche. But what I loved most was that John would rather people went to meet him in person than email him.

This has been a fantastic way to end the year, and I look forward to bringing you more brilliant and passionate researchers in 2017.

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