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M/Y Penny Mae becomes lab for plankton research

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M/Y Penny Mae carried along six scientists on its end-of-season repositioning from New York to West Palm Beach, picking up sea critters and lots of knowledge along the way.

Capt. Mike O’Neill and the yacht’s owner once again put the Penny Mae into service to help the International Seakeepers Society, this time with researchers from the University of Florida collecting and analyzing plankton.

Over six days, UF scientists and the eight-member crew of the 138-foot (42m) Richmond M/Y Penny Mae pulled more than 130 nets filled with at least 400-600 marine planktonic species. More than 95 percent of the total species collected had never been sampled for genomic analyses before, making this research trip aboard the Penny Mae the largest sampling of its kind ever obtained to date, according to ISS.

“It made what would have been a very boring delivery from New York to Palm Beach into something that was really interesting and educational to the crew,” Capt. Mike O’Neill said. The crew got a chance to learn about the study by helping with sample collection and peeking into microscopes along the way.

“They get so super excited about everything they find, and they are so keen to teaching and showing the crew what they’re learning and what they’re gaining,” he said about the UF researchers. “You just ask a question, and you’ll get a whole story from them.”

Leonid Moroz, the principal investigator from UF and a professor of neuroscience, genetics, biology and chemistry, led the research. Tiny, planktonic organisms, which are found in the upper part of the water column, are critical to the health of all oceanic ecosystems, and yet are the least understood. Performing genetic analyses on these organisms allows for identifying and tracking the origin of unique species.

Sampling these animals in waters on the edge of and within the Gulf Stream was especially significant because this major current plays an important role in climate and fisheries in North America, Africa and Europe.

Being able to do some of the analyses onboard the yacht was also significant because it mitigated the problem of tissue disintegration that often happens when samples are stored and brought back to shore for analyses.

The new and representative species were preserved and photographed for the Museum of Natural History at UF in central Florida. The museum has one of the largest online collections of invertebrates in the world, which will soon include the new species catalogued from this trip. Some of the species were also specially preserved for further genomic analyses to identify new biologically active compounds, which could be used in the development of future pharmaceuticals.

M/Y Penny Mae and its tender, Little Penny, both have been involved in several other SeaKeeper expeditions in the past, including shark research in Florida and the Bahamas.

The owners of the yacht have been involved with ISS since its inception in 1998.

“Over the past two years, we’ve become more active with regard to working with scientists through Seakeepers on different expeditions,” Capt. O’Neill said.

The trips are beneficial to both scientists and crew because the two groups function as a team.

“They come along as crew,” he said. “We work together as one big crew. They eat with the crew, share housing with the crew.”

The Penny Mae is already thinking about its next scientific adventure.

“We’re headed to Costa Rica for the winter, and could possibly to bring them along on the return trip to complete the research leg from Florida to Panama,” Capt. O’Neill said. “Then they would get a complete picture of the plankton.”

Suzette Cook is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at suzette@the-triton.com. For more information or to get involved in ISS research trips, visit www.seakeepers.org.

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Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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