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Professor to catalog world's most extensive chrysophyte collection

Professor Peter Siver makes big conclusions from the study of tiny microorganisms found in North American lakes.
Professor Peter Siver makes big conclusions from the study of tiny microorganisms found in North American lakes.

Connecticut College's boathouse serves as a storage facility for canoes, Boston Whalers, oars, maintenance supplies - and the world's most extensive chrysophyte collection. For more than 30 years, Botany Professor Peter Siver has been collecting and meticulously preserving thousands of the microorganisms founds in lakes, oceans and other water sources. Though tiny - one sliver of mud can have hundreds of species - these microorganisms help us understand evolution, have been used to solve murder mysteries and even hold the key to understanding the past, present and future of climate change.

"I have a little storage facility in the boathouse where I keep thousands of these prepared samples," Siver said. Those samples include 60 new species of chrysophytes and diatoms, a new diatom genus and a slide that proves the tundra of northern Canada was once warm enough to support tropical life. To make his vast collection more accessible to other scientists, the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded Siver nearly $150,000 to assemble, catalog and archive the chrysophyte and diatom samples and corresponding data. Raw samples, processed slurries and prepared slides from more than 2,000 collections spanning the east coast of North America will be donated to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, London's Natural History Museum and the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Taxonomic information, high resolution images, distributional records and ecological data will be compiled into a book volume and accompany the museum archives. "Vast chrysophyte collections simply don't exist, primarily because the samples are difficult to preserve," Siver said, explaining that a slight change in temperature or pH will cause the tiny creatures to literally explode. "With these collections, we will be able to compare data and answer a lot of remaining questions." Siver, who specializes in limnology, or the study of lakes, has recently focused his research on fossil lakes dating back 50 million years.

Examining mud samples from an ancient lake core in northern Canada, Siver and a colleague from the University of Alberta discovered microorganisms identical to those that exist today in the tropics. "In the future, we could have alligators in the North Pole, and they will be quite happy," Siver said. Siver hopes the collections will be used by generations of scientists in the future, including, perhaps, some of his own students. "I've taken students to make collections all over the country, including northern Florida, the Carolinas, coastal Maryland, Delaware, Cape Cod and New Jersey," Siver said. "I hope to challenge them and inspire them to continue to pursue scientific research." The NSF grant, which totals $149,813, is 100 percent federally funded.

March 7, 2011