Mourning the passing of our leader, mentor and friend Fred Grassle

It was a profound shock for Rutgers to learn that Fred Grassle had passed away. Fred was our leader, mentor, partner in adventures at sea, and most of all a great friend.  At marine sciences we have always called the marine science building the “home that Fred built”, and it is a home thanks to his warmth and generosity.  Without him and Judy, there would be no modern oceanography program at Rutgers.  Fred has touched countless people, and despite leading international global programs was always freely giving of his time.  Speaking for myself, he was one of my role models for being a scientist and more importantly being a good person.  This a loss for the world.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to Judy and their family.

Fred was extremely humble despite being one of the most decorated oceanographers in history.  He did his undergraduate studies at Yale University and graduate training at Duke University. After a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Queensland he joined Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution conducting deep-sea research on soft-sediment and hydrothermal vent communities. Rutgers was able to convince Fred to come to New Jersey in late 1980’s and he was the founding Director of Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences.  He built a thriving community while maintaining his own research.  He was one of the originators of the international Census of Marine Life and installed the first science-dedicated electro-optical cable at Tuckerton which arguably was a catalyst for the modern ocean observing networks that are being built globally.  Scientifically, he was a pioneer leading to our understanding of the unique vent ecosystems near volcanic vents at the sea floor.  The discovery of these unique ecosystems were the first ecosystems found to be fueled by chemical energy from the Earth’s interior instead of sunlight.  He was honored by many awards including the Benjamin Franklin Medal, the Japan Prize, and the ASLO Lifetime Achievement Award.

Fred was a huge force in our lives that will not be filled. He will be missed and we are all profoundly sad.

Oscar Schofield
Chair of Marine and Coastal Sciences

Over the past week, I spent many quiet moments reflecting upon various aspects of the life of J. Frederick Grassle.

Fred was one of the true giants in the field of biological oceanography. My first encounter with this gentle giant was during the first biological expedition to deep-sea hydrothermal vents in 1979 on which Fred served as Chief Scientist. During this magical journey, each of the foremost authorities in their respective biological oceanographic fields ferociously vied for the few available precious dives in the submersible DSV Alvin. On December 3, 1979, instead of assigning one of his esteemed colleagues, Fred put down in Alvin a young post-doc and my life has never been the same since that day. As my father often remarked, the character of a man can be judged by how he treats those who can do nothing for him – and that young, wide-eyed post-doc on that magical mystery tour could certainly do nothing for Fred. I went down on that priceless journey to the bottom of the ocean with Howard Sanders – a National Academy member and father of the time-stability hypothesis concerning factors maintaining deep-sea benthic diversity... quite the tour guide for one’s first dive into the abyss.

Eight years after that memorable dive, I had the privilege of chairing the Planning and Search Committee for a new Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences and its director. During the search process we received a letter from Howard Sanders addressed to our Executive Vice President T. Alexander Pond who, as all of us at the University at the time knew, literally called all of the shots. That letter was regarding J. Frederick Grassle, who Howard learned had been talked into applying for the Institute Director’s position. Without going into the specifics of the letter, let me simply say that the letter was extremely curt, bordering on irate, and stated in no uncertain terms to Alec Pond: “Don’t you dare steal this man away from Woods Hole unless you are unconditionally committed to creating one of the finest marine science programs in the country”.

To make a long story short, Rutgers was successful in stealing J. Frederick Grassle away from Woods Hole. The creation and growth of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences that Fred directed for over the next 20 years, as well as the creation of the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences was, in the opinion of our own faculty here at Rutgers, as well as countless colleagues throughout the world., nothing short of miraculous. There is no doubt in the minds of those of us associated with the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences (IMCS) and the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences (DMCS). That Fred, in the span of two short decades, put together one of the finest marine science programs in the world. In recognition of this accomplished, Thomson Reuters in 2011 ranked Rutgers fourth in the world among oceanographic research programs.

How fortunate for us associated with IMCS and DMCS to have had at our helm for so many years a rare soul who devoted his life to creating and growing a scientific crown jewel … and, more importantly, nurturing everyone and everything around him …. Fred, as you rest in peace, we thank you for all you did for the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences, for the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences, for Rutgers University and for us your friends and colleagues.

Rich Lutz

NASA Funds Rutgers Scientists’ Pursuit of the Origins of Life

via SEBS Newsroom

Iron- and sulfur-containing minerals found on the early Earth (greigite, left, is one example) share a remarkably similar molecular structure with metals found in modern proteins (ferredoxin, right, is one example). Did the first proteins at the dawn of life on Earth interact directly with rocks to promote catalysis of life? Image: Professor Vikas Nanda/Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine at Rutgers.

Rutgers-led ENIGMA team examines whether “protein nanomachines” in our cells arose before life on Earth, other planets.

What are the origins of life on Earth and possibly elsewhere? Did “protein nanomachines” evolve here before life began to catalyze and support the development of living things? Could the same thing have happened on Mars, the moons of Jupiter and Neptune, and elsewhere in the universe?

Paul Falkowski, Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences.

A Rutgers University-led team of scientists called ENIGMA, for “Evolution of Nanomachines in Geospheres and Microbial Ancestors,” will try to answer those questions over the next five years, thanks to an approximately $6 million NASA grant and membership in the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

Rutgers Today asked Paul G. Falkowski, ENIGMA principal investigator and a distinguished professor at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, about research on the origins of life.

What is astrobiology?

It is the study of the origins of life on Earth and potential life on planets – called extrasolar planets – and planetary bodies like moons in our solar system and other solar systems. More than 3,700 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in the last decade or so. Many of these are potentially rocky planets that are close enough to their star that they may have liquid water, and we want to try and understand if the gases on those planets are created by life, such as the oxygen on Earth.

What is the ENIGMA project?

All life on Earth depends on the movement of electrons; life literally is electric. We breathe in oxygen and breathe out water vapor and carbon dioxide, and in that process we transfer hydrogen atoms, which contain a proton and an electron, to oxygen to make water (H20). We move electrons from the food we eat to the oxygen in the air to derive energy. Every organism on Earth moves electrons to generate energy. ENIGMA is a team of primarily Rutgers researchers that is trying to understand the earliest evolution of these processes, and we think that hydrogen was probably one of the most abundant gases in the early Earth that supported life.

What are the chances of life being found elsewhere in our solar system and the universe?

We’ve been looking for evidence of life on Mars since the Viking mission, which landed in 1976. I think it will be very difficult to prove there is life on Mars today, but there may be signatures of life that existed on Mars in the distant past. Mars certainly had a lot of water on it and had an atmosphere, but that’s all largely gone now. A proposed mission to Europa – an ice-covered moon of Jupiter – is in the planning phase. NASA’s Cassini mission to investigate Titan, a moon of Neptune, revealed liquid methane over what we think is water – very cold, shallow oceans – so there may be life on Titan.

What are protein nanomachines?

They are enzymes that physically move. Each time we take a breath, an enzyme in every cell allows you to transfer electrons to oxygen. Enzymes, like all proteins, are made up of amino acids, of which there are 20 that are used in life. Early on, amino acids were delivered to Earth by meteorites, and we think some of these amino acids could have been coupled together and made nanomachines before life began. That’s what we’re looking to see if we can recreate, using the tens of thousands of protein structures in the Protein Data Bank at Rutgers together with our colleagues in the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine.

What are the next steps?

Organizing our research so it is coherent and relevant to the other collaborating teams in the NASA Astrobiology Institute. We want to develop an education and outreach program at Rutgers that leads to an astrobiology minor for undergraduate students and helps inform K-12 schoolchildren about the origins of life on Earth and what we know and don’t know about the potential for life on other planets. We also want to help make Rutgers a center of excellence in this field so future undergraduate and graduate students and faculty will gravitate towards this university to try to understand the evolution and origin of the molecules that derive energy for life.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Rutgers Today.

Climate Change Means Fish Are Moving Faster Than Fishing Rules, Rutgers-Led Study Says

via Ken Branson

Lobster boats anchored off Cutler, Maine. Photo: Malin Pinsky/Rutgers University-New Brunswick

Climate change is forcing fish species to shift their habitats faster than the world’s system for allocating fish stocks, exacerbating international fisheries conflicts, according to a study led by a Rutgers University–New Brunswick researcher.

The study, published online in the journal Science today, showed for the first time that new fisheries are likely to appear in more than 70 countries all over the world as a result of climate change. History has shown that newly shared fisheries often spark conflict among nations.

Conflict leads to overfishing, which reduces the food, profit and employment fisheries can provide, and can also fracture international relations in other areas beyond fisheries. A future with lower greenhouse gas emissions, like the targets under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, would reduce the potential for conflict, the study says.

“Most people may not understand that the right to harvest particular species of fish is often decided by national and regional fisheries management bodies,” said Malin Pinsky, an assistant professor of ecology, evolution and natural resources in Rutgers–New Brunswick’s School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.
“Those bodies have made the rules based on the notion that particular fish species live in particular waters and don’t move much. Well, they’re moving now because climate change is warming ocean temperatures.”

In a recent study, Pinsky and Rutgers postdoctoral associate James Morley reported that many commercially important fish species could move their ranges hundreds of miles northward in search of colder water. This movement has already begun, and the results have been highly disruptive for fisheries.

“Consider flounder, which have already shifted their range 250 miles farther north,” Pinsky said. “Federal fisheries rules have allocated many of those fish to fishers in North Carolina, and now they have to steam hundreds of extra miles to catch their flounder.”
Rutgers University-New Brunswick Assistant Professor Malin Pinsky with a summer flounder. Photo: Jennifer HoeyStudy Says

Pinsky and his co-authors cite other examples of the disruption of fisheries causing international disputes, including the “mackerel war” between Iceland and the European Union (EU).

Under rules agreed to by EU member nations, fishers harvest a certain number of mackerel each year. But by 2007, those mackerel had begun to move to colder waters near Iceland, which is not an EU member. Iceland began fishing the sudden abundance of mackerel, but could not agree with the EU on sustainable fishing limits. The dispute became a trade war and is still ongoing. Lobster fishers from the United States and Canada have also come into conflict over the lobster fishery, which is also moving north from New England to the Canadian Maritime Provinces.

Given climate change, the movement of fish to new ranges is inevitable, but the conflicts over fish stocks are not, the study says. Governing bodies such as the one overseeing the EU’s fisheries might negotiate with neighboring fisheries organizations to take account of old fisheries moving out and new ones moving in. Pinsky and his co-authors suggest, for example, that governments might allow the trading of fishing permits or quotas across international boundaries.

“We need international agreements for the collaborative monitoring and sharing of fisheries as they move, much as the Antarctic conservation agreement has begun to do,” he said.

The Antarctic management body known as CCAMLR cooperates closely with neighboring fisheries managers to share information about shared fisheries, including those that will continue to move.

The alternative to such agreements is grim, including overfishing and conflicts over fisheries that can spill over into international tensions over trade, borders and sovereignty.

“We have a chance to avoid conflict over fisheries that could escalate international tensions, threaten our food supply, and reduce profit and employment worldwide,” Pinsky said. “Avoiding fisheries conflicts and overfishing ultimately provides more fish, more food and more jobs for everyone.”

Study co-authors include researchers at the University of British Columbia, Utrecht University, Cardiff University, Stockholm University and James Cook University who are participating in the Nippon Foundation-University of British Columbia Nereus Program.