Our research lab focuses on population, community, and
ecosystem-level effects of invasive species and over-exploited resources.
The two major themes of our research program are 1) examining the functional and fundamental changes in communities due to invasive species and environmental change; and 2) investigating the biodiversity and connectivity of over-exploited natural resources to help ensure more sustainable use. We use a range of model organisms in our investigations including seagrasses, fish, slime mold, and terrestrial plants; however, the questions we ask are not habitat specific with finding relevant across ecosystems. Applying quantitative field experiments, molecular genetics, and ecological modeling, our research interests share the common objective of finding balance between utilizing natural resources and conserving the biodiversity and function of ecosystems.
Important to our lab’s approach to research is active public engagement with science. We believe creating opportunities for non-scientists to have hands-on, meaningful experiences with science is the best way to move our research out of the lab and into everyday world. Below are descriptions of research currently underway in our lab, including approaches we’ve developed to engage with the public in the process of biological inquiry.
Ecological and economic impacts of a globally invasive marine plant
The www.invasiveseagrass.org Citizen Science Project is a crowd-sourced monitoring effort to track the relentless spread and impact of the invasive seagrass, Halophila stipulacea. First reported during Dr. Willette’s dissertation, he initially raised awareness with local Caribbean fishermen using posters and bummer stickers. Public and scientific interest in the species grew after he published papers on the species potential ecological risks. In response, the crowd-funded interactive website www.invasiveseagrass.org was launched. The website encourages citizens to post their sightings of Halophila stipulacea and help build our database of the species movement and range. To date we’ve tracked H. stipulacea’s spread to 20+ Caribbean islands. In taking the project further, our lab currently partners with the U.S. National Park Service in a range of field experiments to assess the seagrass’s impact on vulnerable Caribbean organisms such as sea turtles and coral reefs. We are also working with the NPS to increase seagrass literacy through our outreach campaign to educate Park visitors on how they can help spread awareness, not seagrass.
Getting ‘ahead of the spread’ of the invasive seagrass is key in preparing managers for the species’ imminent arrival. For this we are asking two questions; “Where can the invasive disperse to?” and “Where can the species invade?” Re-fashioning tools first developed and widely used in terrestrial ecosystems, we and our collaborators are parameterizing spatially-explicit biophysical connectivity models to quantify the dispersal potential of invasive seagrass propagules to new locations to address the first question, and we are building ecological niche models from the species native and invasive range to generate maps of invasion vulnerability (Fig. 1). A key part of validating our predictive models of invasion is comparing predictions to actual spread, data that we obtain from the www.invasiveseagrass.org database.
Lastly, we are pursuing the broader ecological question of why some species become invasive. Specifically we are investigating the genetic basis of the seagrass Halophila stipulacea’s capacity to rapidly adapt to new habitats across its invasive range in the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas.
Leveraging actionable science to combat seafood fraud in Los Angeles and illegal fishing in the Pacific region
The Los Angeles Seafood Monitoring Project began as an undergraduate biology DNA barcoding laboratory exercise to identify menu-listed sushi to species name. After four years of co-teaching the course, we published a paper identifying a 47% mislabeling rate in LA’s sushi restaurants. The 2017 publication in Conservation Biology received tremendous media attention, and peaked interest of regulators. To capitalize on the enthusiasm, we’ve reached out to seafood stakeholders from the restaurant, import/export, government, non-profit, and academic sectors and now host annual Seafood Traceability Workshops at LMU in the spring of each year. Together we brainstorm what actions could eliminate seafood mislabeling in Los Angeles. The Project currently has two tasks underway: 1) providing free DNA barcoding of seafood samples sold to sushi restaurants in Los Angeles and communicating these results to restaurant owners and management so they can address mislabeling and engage with regulators to address challenges that occur earlier in their supply chain; and 2) engaging with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to propose revisions to ‘The Seafood List’, the federal guidance that defines acceptable market names fish may be sold as.
The challenge of seafood mislabeling and fraud is not limited to LA’s sushi restaurants, but rather is a problem that reaches deep into the national seafood supply chain. The United States is the world’s largest fish importer. Recent reports, however, indicate that 25-30% of wild-caught seafood imported into the US is illegally caught, heightening concerns over the country’s significant role in driving Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing. With partial funding from the US Fulbright Program and in collaboration with partners in the Philippines, Ecuador, Thailand and the US, our lab is testing the utility of existing and emerging technology to improve monitoring of where, when and what fishing boats are harvesting. Specifically, our work is couple an environmental DNA (eDNA) genetic barcoding method with free satellite vessel tracking data (www.globalfishingwatch.org) to profile the fish landings of artisanal and commercial fish landings. See Willette and Cheng 2018 for more on this effort. Visit website (www.losangelesseafoodprojet.org) to find out more on this project.
Growing community involvement in urban park restoration
Seeing an opportunity to bridge science and a community need in our own backyard, the Ascot Hills Urban Park Restoration Project promotes the use of hands-on science activities that could simultaneously help meet the park’s restoration goals. Ascot Hills Park was established in 2008 and is a 92-acre green space in the eastern LA neighborhood of El Sereno. Our lab partners with a local high school and environmental non-profit organization in on-going quantitative field experiments aimed at optimizing restoration efforts. We work closely with and are guided by the local Park Advisory Board, and actively participate in monthly ‘Green Team’ work parties. In the past year we worked side-by-side with hundreds of community volunteers to remove invasive plants from the park and have added over 200 native plant seedlings (seedlings raised in the LMU greenhouse). While in the park we take any opportunity to engage in informal biodiversity and conservation learning with our volunteer friends and discuss how science is essential in vitalizing our new park.
Using printing technology and slime mold to re-vision Los Angeles' transit network
The slime mold Physarum polycephalum is a single-celled, multinucleated organism that can be observed without the assistance of magnification. When cultivated under optimal dark and humid environmental conditions, the plasmodial slime mold aggregates towards its food source (oat flakes in the lab) to create the most efficient network by using chemical cues in the environment, called chemotaxis. Our work aims to assess the exploration of the slime mold’s foraging specifically on geographic locations of 3D printed maps of Los Angeles. The results from P. polycephalum’s exploration will be used to assess the slime mold’s ability to generate isomorphic solutions similar to Los Angeles’ Metro mass transit network system. The 3D printed maps, modeled from regional topographic maps, are used to create ‘real-world’ spatial obstacles (such as mountain ridges) during foraging by the slime mold. Our results thus far show that P. polycephalum can successfully forage on 3D printed maps when a 2% agar medium is brushed over the map’s surface prior to applying the slime mold. Furthermore, preliminary data has produced novel solutions to mass transit arrangements tested in lab. These and forthcoming data we be a timely perspective as Los Angeles’ Metro has created a new Mass Transit Expenditure Plan that will serve 210 million passengers and create 120 miles of light rail by 2040. The rapid (3 days) ability of P. polycephalum to generate possible transit solutions that can take engineers months to years to formulate, provides an innovative, biologically-inspired solution to Los Angeles’ persistent mass transit problem.
Research in the Willette Lab is made possible by the generous support of: