Category Archives: Research

A faster vessel for charting the brain (Nature Communications)

Mouse neuron

Mouse neuron expressing GCaMP3. (Image source: Nature.)

By Morgan Kelly, Office of Communications

Princeton University researchers have created “souped up” versions of the calcium-sensitive proteins that for the past decade or so have given scientists an unparalleled view and understanding of brain-cell communication.

Reported July 18 in the journal Nature Communications, the enhanced proteins developed at Princeton respond more quickly to changes in neuron activity, and can be customized to react to different, faster rates of neuron activity. Together, these characteristics would give scientists a more precise and comprehensive view of neuron activity.

The researchers sought to improve the function of proteins known as green fluorescent protein/calmodulin protein (GCaMP) sensors, an amalgam of various natural proteins that are a popular form of sensor proteins known as genetically encoded calcium indicators, or GECIs. Once introduced into the brain via the bloodstream, GCaMPs react to the various calcium ions involved in cell activity by glowing fluorescent green. Scientists use this fluorescence to trace the path of neural signals throughout the brain as they happen.

GCaMPs and other GECIs have been invaluable to neuroscience, said corresponding author Samuel Wang, a Princeton associate professor of molecular biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. Scientists have used the sensors to observe brain signals in real time, and to delve into previously obscure neural networks such as those in the cerebellum. GECIs are necessary for the BRAIN Initiative President Barack Obama announced in April, Wang said. The estimated $3 billion project to map the activity of every neuron in the human brain cannot be done with traditional methods, such as probes that attach to the surface of the brain. “There is no possible way to complete that project with electrodes, so you have to do it with other tools — GECIs are those tools,” he said.

Despite their value, however, the proteins are still limited when it comes to keeping up with the fast-paced, high-voltage ways of brain cells, and various research groups have attempted to address these limitations over the years, Wang said.

“GCaMPs have made significant contributions to neuroscience so far, but there have been some limits and researchers are running up against those limits,” Wang said.

One shortcoming is that GCaMPs are about one-tenth of a second slower than neurons, which can fire hundreds of times per second, Wang said. The proteins activate after neural signals begin, and mark the end of a signal when brain cells have (by neuronal terms) long since moved on to something else, Wang said. A second current limitation is that GCaMPs can only bind to four calcium ions at a time. Higher rates of cell activity cannot be fully explored because GCaMPs fill up quickly on the accompanying rush of calcium.

The Princeton GCaMPs respond more quickly to changes in calcium so that changes in neural activity are seen more immediately, Wang said. By making the sensors a bit more sensitive and fragile — the proteins bond more quickly with calcium and come apart more readily to stop glowing when calcium is removed — the researchers whittled down the roughly 20 millisecond response time of existing GCaMPs to about 10 milliseconds, Wang said.

The researchers also tweaked certain GCaMPs to be sensitive to different types of calcium ion concentrations, meaning that high rates of neural activity can be better explored. “Each probe is sensitive to one range or another, but when we put them together they make a nice choir,” Wang said.

The researchers’ work also revealed the location of a “bottleneck” in GCaMPs that occurs when calcium concentration is high, which poses a third limitation of the existing sensors, Wang said. “Now that we know where that bottle neck is, we think we can design the next generation of proteins to get around it,” Wang said. “We think if we open up that bottleneck, we can get a probe that responds to neuronal signals in one millisecond.”

The faster protein that the Princeton researchers developed could pair with work in other laboratories to improve other areas of GCaMP function, Wang said. For instance, a research group out of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute reported in Nature July 17 that it developed a GCaMP with a brighter fluorescence. Such improvements on existing sensors gradually open up more of the brain to exploration and understanding, said Wang, adding that the Princeton researchers will soon introduce their sensor into fly and mammalian brains.

“At some level, what we’ve done is like taking apart an engine, lubing up the parts and putting it back together. We took what was the best version of the protein at the time and made changes to the letter code of the protein,” Wang said. “We want to watch the whole symphony of thousands of neurons do their thing, and we think this variant of GCaMPs will help us do that better than anyone else has.”

Read the abstract.

Sun, Xiaonan R., Aleksandra Badura, Diego A. Pacheco, Laura A. Lynch, Eve R. Schneider, Matthew P. Taylor, Ian B. Hogue, Lynn W. Enquist, Mala Murthy and Samuel S.-H. Wang. 2013. Fast GCaMPs for improved tracking of neuronal activity. Nature Communications. Article first published online: July 18, 2013. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms3170

This work was supported by NIH R01 NS045193, (S.S.-H.W.) RC1 NS068414 (L.W.E./S.S.-H.W.), and P40 RR18604 and NS060699 (L.W.E.), a McKnight Technological Innovations Award (S.S.-H.W.), a W.M. Keck Foundation Distinguished Young Investigator award (S.S.-H.W.), an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship, Klingenstein, McKnight, and NSF CAREER Young Investigator awards (M.M.), and an American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (M.P.T./I.B.H.).

Pupil study reveals learning styles, brain activity (Nature Neuroscience)

Test of learning styles experiment

To test people’s learning styles, participants were presented with a choice between two images (objects or words) and rewarded according to their choices. In this exercise, to maximize reward, participants had to learn by trial and error that office-related images provide a higher reward than food-related images (semantic, or related to meaning), and that grayscale images provide a higher reward than color images (visual features). Image credit: Nature Neuroscience.

By Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research

People are often said to have “learning styles” – for example, some people pay attention to visual details while others grab onto abstract concepts and meanings. A new study from Princeton University researchers found that changes in pupil size can reveal whether people are learning using their dominant learning style, or whether they are learning in modes outside of that style.

The researchers found that pupil dilation was smaller when people learned using their usual style and larger when people diverged from their normal style. The study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The study compared brain activity in individuals with two different learning styles – those who learn best by absorbing concrete visual details and those who are better at learning abstract concepts or meanings.

“We showed that changes in pupil dilation are associated with the degree to which learners use the style for which they have a predisposition,” said Eldar Eran, a graduate student in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, who led the study.

The researchers used changes in pupil size as an indicator of variations in “neural gain,” which can be thought of as an amplifier of neural communication: when gain is increased, excited neurons become even more active and inhibited neurons become even less active. Smaller pupil dilation indicates more neural gain and larger pupil dilation indicates less neural gain.

The team showed that neural gain was correlated with different modes of communication between parts of the brain. In studies of human volunteers undergoing brain scans, when neural gain was high, communication tended to be tightly concentrated in certain regions of the brain that govern specific tasks, whereas low neural gain is associated with communication across wider regions of the brain.

“We showed that the brain has different modes of communication,” said Yael Niv, assistant professor of psychology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, “one mode where everything talks to everything else, and another mode where communication is more segregated into areas that don’t talk to each other.” The study also involved Jonathan Cohen, Princeton’s Robert Bendheim and Lynn Bendheim Thoman Professor in Neuroscience.

These modes are linked to the level of neural gain and to learning style, Niv said. Neural gain can be thought of as a contrast amplifier that increases intensity of both activation and inhibition of communication among brain areas. “If one area is trying to activate another, or trying to inhibit another – both effects are stronger, everything is more potent,” she said. “This is correlated with communication being segregated into clusters of activation in the brain, so each network is talking to itself loudly, but connections across networks are inhibited. In situations of lower gain, however, the areas can talk to each other across networks, so information flows more globally.”

“These two modes [of communication in the brain] seem to be associated with different constraints on learning,” she said. “According to our study, in the mode where everything talks to everything, learning is very flexible. In contrast, in the mode where communication is stronger and more focused, but also more segregated between brain areas, subjects were more true to their personal learning style. Neither of these modes are better than the other – in both cases participants were equally successful in the task, but in different ways.”

“We interpreted these results to mean that although we tend to have a dominant learning style, we are not a slave to that style, and when operating in the proper mode, we can overcome dominant styles to learn in other ways,” she said.

This research was funded by NIH grants R03 DA029073 and R01 MH098861, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Student Research fellowship, and a Sloan Research Fellowship. The authors also wish to thank the generous support of the Regina and John Scully Center for the Neuroscience of Mind and Behavior within the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.

Read the article

Eldar, Eran, Jonathan D Cohen & Yael Niv. 2013. The effects of neural gain on attention and learning.  Nature Neuroscience. Published online June 16, 2013 doi:10.1038/nn.3428

New imaging technique provides improved insight into controlling the plasma in fusion experiments (Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion)

Graphic of fluctuating electron temperatures

Graphic representation of 2D images of fluctuating electron temperatures in a cross-section of a confined fusion plasma. (Image source: Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion)

By John Greenwald, Office of Communications, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

A key issue for the development of fusion energy to generate electricity is the ability to confine the superhot, charged plasma gas that fuels fusion reactions in magnetic devices called tokamaks. This gas is subject to instabilities that cause it to leak from the magnetic fields and halt fusion reactions.

Now a recently developed imaging technique can help researchers improve their control of instabilities. The new technique, developed by physicists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), the University of California-Davis and General Atomics in San Diego, provides new insight into how the instabilities respond to externally applied magnetic fields.

This technique, called Electron Cyclotron Emission Imaging (ECEI) and successfully tested on the DIII-D tokamak at General Atomics, uses an array of detectors to produce a 2D profile of fluctuating electron temperatures within the plasma. Standard methods for diagnosing plasma temperature have long relied on a single line of sight, providing only a 1D profile. Results of the ECEI technique, recently reported in the journal Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion, could enable researchers to better model the response of confined plasma to external magnetic perturbations that are applied to improve plasma stability and fusion performance.

PPPL is managed by Princeton University.

Read the abstract.

B.J. Tobias; L.Yu; C.W. Domier; N.C. Luhmann, Jr; M.E. Austin; C. Paz-Soldan; A.D. Turnbull; I.G.J. Classen; and the DIII-D Team. 2013. Boundary perturbations coupled to core 3/2 tearing modes on the DIII-D tokamak. Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion. Article first published online: July 5, 2013. DOI:10.1088/0741-3335/55/9/095006

This work was supported in part by the US Department of Energy under DE-AC02- 09CH11466, DE-FG02-99ER54531, DE-FG03-97ER54415, DE-AC05-00OR23100, DE- FC02-04ER54698, and DE-FG02-95ER54309.

 

Migrating animals add new depth to how the ocean “breathes” (Nature Geoscience)

By Morgan Kelly, Office of Communications

The oxygen content of the ocean may be subject to frequent ups and downs in a very literal sense — that is, in the form of the numerous sea creatures that dine near the surface at night then submerge into the safety of deeper, darker waters at daybreak.

Research begun at Princeton University and recently reported on in the journal Nature Geoscience found that animals ranging from plankton to small fish consume vast amounts of what little oxygen is available in the ocean’s aptly named “oxygen minimum zone” daily. The sheer number of organisms that seek refuge in water roughly 200- to 650-meters deep (650 to 2,000 feet) every day result in the global consumption of between 10 and 40 percent of the oxygen available at these depths.

The findings reveal a crucial and underappreciated role that animals have in ocean chemistry on a global scale, explained first author Daniele Bianchi, a postdoctoral researcher at McGill University who began the project as a doctoral student of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at Princeton.

Migration depth of sea animals

Research begun at Princeton University found that the numerous small sea animals that migrate from the surface to deeper water every day consume vast amounts of what little oxygen is available in the ocean’s aptly named “oxygen minimum zone” daily. The findings reveal a crucial and underappreciated role that animals have in ocean chemistry on a global scale. The figure above shows the various depths (in meters) that animals migrate to during the day to escape predators. Red indicates the shallowest depths of 200 meters (650 feet), and blue represents the deepest of 600 meters (2,000 feet). The black numbers on the map represent the difference (in moles, used to measure chemical content) between the oxygen at the surface and at around 500 meters deep, which is the best parameter for predicting migration depth. (Courtesy of Daniele Bianchi)

“In a sense, this research should change how we think of the ocean’s metabolism,” Bianchi said. “Scientists know that there is this massive migration, but no one has really tried to estimate how it impacts the chemistry of the ocean.

“Generally, scientists have thought that microbes and bacteria primarily consume oxygen in the deeper ocean,” Bianchi said. “What we’re saying here is that animals that migrate during the day are a big source of oxygen depletion. We provide the first global data set to say that.”

Much of the deep ocean can replenish (often just barely) the oxygen consumed during these mass migrations, which are known as diel vertical migrations (DVMs).

But the balance between DVMs and the limited deep-water oxygen supply could be easily upset, Bianchi said — particularly by climate change, which is predicted to further decrease levels of oxygen in the ocean. That could mean these animals would not be able to descend as deep, putting them at the mercy of predators and inflicting their oxygen-sucking ways on a new ocean zone.

“If the ocean oxygen changes, then the depth of these migrations also will change. We can expect potential changes in the interactions between larger guys and little guys,” Bianchi said. “What complicates this story is that if these animals are responsible for a chunk of oxygen depletion in general, then a change in their habits might have a feedback in terms of oxygen levels in other parts of the deeper ocean.”

The researchers produced a global model of DVM depths and oxygen depletion by mining acoustic oceanic data collected by 389 American and British research cruises between 1990 and 2011. Using the background readings caused by the sound of animals as they ascended and descended, the researchers identified more than 4,000 DVM events.

They then chemically analyzed samples from DVM-event locations to create a model that could correlate DVM depth with oxygen depletion. With that data, the researchers concluded that DVMs indeed intensify the oxygen deficit within oxygen minimum zones.

“You can say that the whole ecosystem does this migration — chances are that if it swims, it does this kind of migration,” Bianchi said. “Before, scientists tended to ignore this big chunk of the ecosystem when thinking of ocean chemistry. We are saying that they are quite important and can’t be ignored.”

Bianchi conducted the data analysis and model development at McGill with assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences Eric Galbraith and McGill doctoral student David Carozza. Initial research of the acoustic data and development of the migration model was conducted at Princeton with K. Allison Smith (published as K.A.S. Mislan), a postdoctoral research associate in the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, and Charles Stock, a researcher with the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Read the abstract

Citation: Bianchi, Daniele, Eric D. Galbraith, David A. Carozza, K.A.S. Milan and Charles A. Stock. 2013. Intensification of open-oxygen minimum zones by vertically migrating animals. Nature Geoscience. Article first published online: June 9, 2013. DOI:10.1038/ngeo1837

This work was supported in part by grants from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and the Princeton Carbon Mitigation Initiative.

 

Pebbles and sand on Mars best evidence that a river ran through it (Science)

NASA Pebbles on Mars

Pebble-rich rock slabs have been observed on Mars, suggesting the presence of an ancient stream bed (Source: Science)

By Morgan Kelly, Office of Communications

Pebbles and sand scattered near an ancient Martian river network may present the most convincing evidence yet that the frigid deserts of the Red Planet were once a habitable environment traversed by flowing water.

Scientists with NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission reported May 30 in the journal Science the discovery of sand grains and small stones that bear the telltale roundness of river stones and are too heavy to have been moved by wind. The researchers estimated that the sediment was produced by water that moved at a speed between that of a small stream and a large river, and had a depth of roughly an inch to nearly 3 feet.

Co-author Kevin Lewis, a Princeton associate research scholar in geosciences and a participating scientist on the Mars mission, said that the rocks and sand are among the best evidence so far that water once flowed on Mars, and suggest that the planet’s past climate was wildly different from what it is today.

“This is one of the best pieces of evidence we’ve seen on the ground for flowing water,” Lewis said. “The shape of these rocks and sand is exactly the same kind of thing you’d see if you went out to any streambed. It suggests a very similar environment to the Earth’s.”

The researchers analyzed sediment taken from a Martian plain that abuts a sedimentary deposit known as an alluvial fan. Alluvial fans are comprised of sediment leftover when a river spreads out over a plain then dries up, and are common on Earth in arid regions such as Death Valley.

Yet Death Valley is a refreshing spring compared to Mars today, Lewis said. Satellite images taken in preparation for the 2012 landing of NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover had revealed ancient river channels carved into the land on and around Mount Sharp, a 3.5-mile high mound similar in size to Alaska’s Mt. McKinley that would become the rover’s landing site. A major objective of the Curiosity mission is to explore Mars’ past habitability.

Nonetheless, liquid water itself is most likely rare on Mars’ currently cold and dusty landscape where wind is the dominant force. Lewis was co-author on a paper in the May 2013 edition of the journal Geology that suggested that Mount Sharp, thought to be the remnant of a massive lake, is most likely a giant dust pile produced by Mars’ violent, swirling winds.

Strong as it might be, however, wind cannot move sediment grains with a diameter larger than a few millimeters, Lewis said. The sand and stones he and his colleagues analyzed had diameters ranging from one to 40 millimeters, or roughly the size of a mustard seed to being only slightly smaller than a golf ball. The roundness of the sediment also suggested a prolonged eroding force, Lewis said.

“Once you get above a couple of millimeters the wind will not be able to mobilize sediment. A number of the grains we see in this outcrop are substantially bigger than that,” Lewis said. “That really leaves us with fluvial transport as the most likely process. We knew Curiosity was landing near the fan, but to land right on top of these rocks that suggest the presence of water was really fortuitous.”

If the sediment does mean a river ran through Mars, the researchers must next determine when, where it came from and how it dried up, a project that will be a “major scientific project over the coming year,” Lewis said. The mystery also centers on the potential relationship of the river to the scars on Mount Sharp: Did the river flow down it? Was the mound a source of water after all?

“This evidence tells us that there were a diverse set of geological processes happening at roughly the same time within the proximity of [the landing site], and it gives us a picture of a much more dynamic Mars than we see today,” Lewis said. “Finding out how exactly they relate will be an exciting story.”

Read the abstract.

Citation: Williams, R.M.E., et al. 2013. Martian fluvial conglomerates at Gale Crater. Science. Article first published online: May. 30, 2013. DOI: 10.1126/science.1237317

This work was supported in part by grants from NASA Mars Program Office.

DNA Gridlock – Cells undo glitches to prevent mutations (Nature)

By Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research

G4 Quadruplex

The diagram shows a G-quadruplex (G4) on the upper of the two strands that make up DNA. The purple shape represents DNA polymerase, which is blocked by the G4 in its attempt to copy DNA. Regions of the genome that are especially susceptible to forming G-quadruplexes are ones rich in guanine, which is one of the four nucleotides, designated by the letters G, A, C, and T, in DNA. Adapted from Nature Genetics, 2012.

Roughly six feet of DNA are packed into every human cell, so it is not surprising that our genetic material occasionally folds into odd shapes such as hairpins, crosses and clover leafs. But these structures can block the copying of DNA during cell division, leading to gene mutations that could have implications in cancer and aging.

Now researchers based at Princeton University have uncovered evidence that cells contain a built-in system for eliminating one of the worst of these roadblocks, a structure known as a G-quadruplex. In a paper published earlier this month in Nature, a group of researchers led by Princeton’s Virginia Zakian reported that an enzyme known as the Pif1 helicase can unfold these structures both in test tubes and in cells, bringing DNA replication back on track.

Given that Pif1 mutations have been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, Zakian said, the study of how Pif1 ensures proper DNA replication could be relevant to human health. Zakian is Princeton’s Harry C. Wiess Professor in the Life Sciences.

Most DNA is made of up of two strands twisted about each other in a way that resembles a spiral staircase. Every time a cell divides, each DNA molecule must be duplicated, a process that involves unwinding the staircase so that an enzyme known as DNA polymerase can work down each strand, copying each letter in the DNA code. During this exposed period, regions of the unwound single strands can fold into G-quadruplexes (see diagram).

Like a car that encounters a pile-up on an Interstate, the DNA polymerase halts when it encounters a G-quadruplex, explained Matthew Bochman, a postdoctoral researcher who was a co-first author with Katrin Paeschke, now an independent investigator at University of Würzburg in Germany. The work also included Princeton graduate student Daniela Garcia.

“The DNA that is folded into a G-quadruplex cannot be replicated, so essentially it is skipped,” Bochman said. “Failure to copy specific areas of DNA that you really need is a serious problem, especially in regions that control genes that either suppress or contribute to cancer,” Bochman said.

Last year, the Zakian group in collaboration with human geneticists at the University of Washington reported that a mutation in human Pif1 is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, suggesting that the ability to unwind G-quadruplexes could be important for protecting against cancer. The finding was published in the journal PLoS One.

G-quadruplexes could also be implicated in the process of aging, according to the researchers. The structures are thought to form at the ends of chromosomes in regions called telomeres, said Zakian, an expert on telomere biology.  Damaged or shortened telomeres are associated with premature aging and cancer.

To explore the role of Pif1 helicases in tackling G-quadruplexes, Bochman and Paeschke purified Pif1 helicases from yeast and bacteria and found that in test tubes, all of the Pif1 helicases unwind G-quadruplex structures extremely fast and very efficiently, much better than other helicases tested in the same way.

Next, these investigators set up an experiment to determine if Pif1 acts on G-quadruplexes inside cells. Using a system that could precisely evaluate the effects of G-quadruplex structures on the integrity of chromosomes, the researchers found that normal cells had no problem with the addition of a G-quadruplex structure, but when cells lack Pif1 helicases, the G-quadruplex induced a high amount of genome instability.

“To me, the most remarkable aspect of the study was the demonstration that Pif1-like helicases taken from species ranging from bacteria to humans and placed in yeast cells can suppress G-quadruplex-induced DNA damage,” Zakian said. “This finding suggests that resolving G-quadruplexes is an evolutionarily conserved function of Pif1 helicases.”

The Zakian lab also found that replicating through G-quadruplexes in the absence of Pif1 helicases results not only in mutations of the DNA at the site of the G-quadruplex but also in intriguing “epigenetic” effects on expression of nearby genes that were totally unexpected. Epigenetic events cause changes in gene expression that are inherited, yet they do not involve loss or mutation of DNA. Graduate student Daniela Garcia has proposed that the epigenetic silencing of gene expression that occurs near G-quadruplexes in the absence of Pif1 helicases is a result of the addition or removal of molecular tags on histones, which are proteins that bind DNA and regulate gene expression. This hypothesis is currently being studied.

The study involved contributions from Petr Cejka and Stephen C. Kowalczykowski of the University of California-Davis, and Katherine Friedman of Vanderbilt University.

Read the abstract.

Paeschke, Katrin, Matthew L. Bochman, P. Daniela Garcia, Petr Cejka, Katherine L. Friedman, Stephen C. Kowalczykowski & Virginia A. Zakian. Pif1 family helicases suppress genome instability at G-quadruplex motifs. Nature. 2013. doi:10.1038/nature12149.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (V.A.Z., GM026938-34; S.C.K.GM041347), the National Science Foundation (K.L.F., MCB-0721595), the German Research Foundation (DFG), the New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research (K.P.) and the American Cancer Society (M.L.B., PF-10-145-02-01).

 

How the ice ages ended (Nature)

by Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research

Antarctica. Photo credit: Harley D. Nygren, NOAA

Antarctica. Photo credit: Harley D. Nygren, NOAA

A study of sediment cores collected from the deep ocean supports a new explanation for how glacier melting at the end of the ice ages led to the release of carbon dioxide from the ocean.

The study published in Nature suggests that melting glaciers in the northern hemisphere caused a disruption of deep ocean currents, leading to the release of trapped carbon dioxide from the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

Understanding what happened when previous glaciers melted could help climate researchers make accurate predictions about future global temperature increases and their effects on the planet.

The evidence is strong that ice ages are driven by periodic changes in the amount of sunlight reaching the poles due to cyclic changes in Earth’s rotation and orbit. Yet scientists have been puzzled by evidence that although the timing of ice ages are best explained by changes in sunlight in the northern part of the globe, the warming at the end of ice ages occurred first in the southern hemisphere, with a rise in carbon dioxide levels appearing to be cued from the south.

The new study suggests that changes in ocean currents, connecting the north to the south through the deep ocean, were to blame.

As glaciers melted in the northern reaches of the globe (far upper left), the influx of freshwater, which is naturally less dense than salt-laden ocean water, reduced the normally strong sinking of water in that region. This allowed silicate-rich deep water to rise upward into the shallower ocean waters (upward blue arrows), stimulating the production of opal by diatoms, while warm surface water mixed downward (red arrows) into the southern-sourced deep water. The rising silicate-rich water drew dense cold water from near Antarctica, yielding a cycle of water movement (in yellow). The new circulation pattern caused the carbon dioxide stored in the deep water to be released to the atmosphere near Antarctica (far upper right). Image source: Daniel Sigman.

As glaciers melted in the northern reaches of the globe (far upper left), the influx of freshwater, which is naturally less dense than salt-laden ocean water, caused a reduction in the normally strong sinking of water in that region. This allowed silicate-rich deep water to rise upward into the shallower ocean waters (upward blue arrows), stimulating the production of opal by diatoms, while warm surface water mixed downward (red arrows) into the southern-sourced deep water. The rising silicate-rich water drew dense cold water from near Antarctica, yielding a cycle of water movement (in yellow). The new circulation pattern caused carbon dioxide stored in the deep water to be released to the atmosphere near Antarctica (far upper right). Image source: Daniel Sigman.

Part of this story was suggested more than a decade ago and is already accepted by many climate scientists: As glaciers in the north started melting, the influx of fresh water diluted the salty waters that today flow to the north from the tropics as an extension of the Gulf Stream. Normally, these salty waters become cool and sink into the deep ocean, forming cold and dense water that flows southward, and allowing more salty tropical water to take its place in a sort of ocean conveyor belt. But the influx of fresh water due to melting glaciers stalled the conveyor belt.

So how did this lead to changes in the southern hemisphere?

The new research suggests that the shutdown in northern sinking water allowed southern-sourced water to fill up the deep Atlantic, setting up a new ocean circulation pattern. This new circulation pattern brought deep-sea water, which was rich in carbon dioxide due to sunken dead marine algae, to the surface near Antarctica, where the gas escaped into the atmosphere and acted to drive global warming.  (See diagram.)

The researchers included investigators from ETH Zürich, Princeton University, the University of Miami, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Bremen and the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany. The Princeton effort was led by Daniel Sigman, the Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences.

The team tracked these historic movements of water through the study of sediment cores that are rich in silicon dioxide, or opal. Tiny marine algae known as diatoms make their cell walls out of opal, and when the organisms die, their opal remains sink to the deep sea bed.

The researchers looked at opal in sediment core samples drilled from deep beneath the ocean floor off the coast of northwest Africa and Antarctica. The team found that each period of glacier melting, which occurred five times over the last 550 thousand years, corresponded to a spike in the amount of the opal in the sediment, signaling an increase in diatom growth. The timing of the opal spikes provides evidence that the deep, opal-rich waters in the south were drawn to the surface in response to new meltwater entering the northern ocean.

The mechanism clashes with a previously offered explanation of why the melting of the northern glaciers, or deglaciations, leads to the release of ocean carbon dioxide from the Southern Ocean – the theory that the melting glaciers in the north increased southern hemisphere westerly winds, which in turn caused upwelling of Southern Ocean deep waters. “While distinguishing between these alternatives is important,” says Sigman, “the greater challenge is to test and understand a premise that is shared by both of these scenarios: that ice age conditions around Antarctica caused the deep ocean to be sluggish and rich in carbon dioxide. If this was really how the ice age ocean operated, then it calls for us to reconsider how we expect deep ocean circulation to respond to modern global warming.”

Read the abstract.

A. N. Meckler, D. M. Sigman, K. A. Gibson, R. François, A. Martínez-García, S. L. Jaccard, U. Röhl, L. C. Peterson, R. Tiedemann & G. H. Haug. 2013. Deglacial pulses of deep-ocean silicate into the subtropical North Atlantic Ocean. Nature 495 (7442), 495-498. doi:10.1038/nature12006. Published online 27 March, 2013.

This research used samples provided by the ODP, which is sponsored by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and participating countries under the management of the Joint Oceanographic Institutions. XRF data were acquired at the XRF Core Scanner Lab at MARUM – Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, University of Bremen, with support from the DFG-Leibniz Center for Surface Process and Climate Studies at the University of Potsdam. Further support was provided by the US NSF through grant OCE-1060947 to D.M.S. and by NSERC and CFCAS to R.F.