UCSB will soon take the first big small step ahead of the world in solving the issues of marine life restoration. The Dept. of Mechanical and Environmental Engineering at UCSB has been awarded $1.2 million from the W.M. Keck Foundation to take a novel, nanotechnological approach to preserving the ecological environment.

The typical life cycle of a Pacific salmon begins with 5,000 fertilized eggs, which are deposited in a gravel nest. After several months, 3,000 hatch. One thousand leave the gravel to live and grow in fresh water. In a year or two, 500 prepare to migrate to the ocean. In the end, only two will successfully live to spawn.

Over the past two decades, environmentalists have resolved to preserve the environment by altering human behavior. Reduction of the physical and chemical pollution that arise from human activities, improved harvesting methods, and preservation of areas such as marine reserves are some of the procedures implemented by the government to reduce environmental degradation.

Although they slow the degradation of natural resources, such processes do not provide the most effective solution. Despite reduced damage, an ecosystem is still left to recover on its own. To resolve this issue, researchers are looking to study ways to increase the speed of recovery.

“It is a completely new area of research which no one else in the world is working on. We have all the right elements – for example, access to first-class research facilities, ranging from state-of-the art clean rooms for fabrication of nanoscale devices to the finest flow-through seawater system on any university campus in the world – and it is our tradition to work in new areas here at UCSB,” said Evelyn Hu, engineering professor and director of Nanotech, UCSB’s component of the National Nanofabrication Users Network

The basic scheme of the approach is to utilize the latest advances in technology and ecology to mimic the ecological environment under laboratory conditions, which will then elevate researchers’ ability to study and manipulate the actual environment.

For example, experiments with a variety of wavelengths of light are now possible with the use of gallium nitride in the production of light-emitting sources. Research using these devices can be applied to the study of the effects of light on fish. Researchers are now able to carry out various experiments to investigate a fish’s vision, its sensitivity to light of different wavelengths and how fish respond to visual cues. These are some of the short-term goals of the project.

“We are integrating various fields of sciences – marine science, marine biology, engineering, material science, chemistry, etc. – to augment the potential of each. We hope to educate each other in our specialized areas and, in the long run, demonstrate the potential of integration,” Coastal Research Center Director and biology Professor Russell J. Schmitt said.

Initial research ideas focus on coral-associated fishes and how local populations of such fishes could be enhanced by providing, in nature, an appropriate intensity of various elements – such as light, water level and water concentration – that encourage the growth of fishes, and to guide otherwise doomed larvae to suitable settlement sites. Most laboratory development will occur at UCSB. Field tests will be conducted at the UC Berkeley Gump Research Station in Moorea and French Polynesia.

“All of us have a common interest to work together and to learn from one another,” Hu said.

“The research has the potential to catalyze a paradigm shift in the approach taken to environmental restoration,” Schmitt said.