Anyone Hungry for Some Sea Tomatoes?

Today we visited two researchers at their study site where the very odd sea tomatoes grow in abundance.  Lauren Culler, a doctoral student at Dartmouth, and Danny O’Donnell, a doctoral student at Michigan State, are both spending some time away from their main research projects to satiate their scientific curiosity and study the mysterious sea tomatoes.

It’s a dried apricot, no it’s a prune, no it’s a sea tomato!

The story starts several years ago when Lauren and other Dartmouth students heard from locals that sea tomatoes existed in lakes surrounding Kangerlussuaq.  It seemed too strange to be true – tomatoes growing in lakes?  However, during field work several summers ago they confirmed that sea tomatoes do indeed exist in Greenland, especially in a particular lake.  These are quite strange life forms – can anyone take a guess what it is?

Initial guesses might include some form of vegetable or fruit, but it is cyanobacteria, a form of algae!  This lake is full of sea tomatoes, which sparked Lauren and Danny to wonder why they are in such abundance in this lake.  During their talk today they shared many research questions related to the sea tomatoes from why the sea tomatoes are there, to what effect they have on the surrounding ecosystem.  As lakes are local sources of freshwater and some locals claim to eat sea tomatoes, Lauren and Danny would also like to know if this type of cyanobacteria, Nostoc pruniforme, produces any toxins that may contaminate the water or make the tomatoes dangerous to eat.

Sea Tomato Cross Section: they are very squishy and gelatinous with an outer skin.

Currently, Lauren and Danny are busy taking water quality measurements and samples, and figuring out how they can transport these tomatoes back to the U.S. so that they can properly analyze them in the lab.  They have so many research questions to explore and they need a sufficient supply of these tomatoes to satisfy all the prodding, probing and measuring that is necessary to conduct a rigorous scientific study.

I found the sea tomatoes very exciting – there are so many unanswered questions about these tomatoes, and so little research has been done.  There is so much to discover!

For more information see the Dartmouth IGERT blog posts:

http://dartmouthigert.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/local-knowledge/

http://dartmouthigert.wordpress.com/2011/08/04/the-infamous-kangerlussuaq-sea-tomatoes/

http://dartmouthigert.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/kangerlussuaq-sea-tomatoes-part-2/

Lauren Culler and Danny O'Donnell sharing their knowledge of the sea tomatoes

Good luck Lauren and Danny with your research!  Looking forward to reading about your discoveries some day soon!

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