Professor of ocean sciences Kenneth Bruland appointed to the Ida Benson Lynn Endowed Chair in Ocean Health at UCSC

Kenneth Bruland, professor of ocean sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has spent more than 25 years studying the chemistry of the ocean and the ways in which trace amounts of certain elements influence marine ecosystems. Bruland was a pioneer in the development of the demanding techniques needed to measure trace elements in seawater. His appointment this month to the Ida Benson Lynn Endowed Chair in Ocean Health recognizes Bruland's important contributions in this area and provides support for his ongoing research.

The Ida Benson Lynn Endowed Chair in Ocean Health was established in 1998 and is intended for an outstanding scholar with research interests in the area of ocean health. Bruland's five-year appointment to the chair brings with it $15,000 per year to support his teaching, public service, and research, and an additional $40,000 to support graduate student fellowships.

Bruland said he has several ideas for using the funds that come with the endowed chair.

"I am especially excited about the idea of being able to use this endowment to help recruit and support outstanding graduate students," he said.

With fellowship support from the endowment, rather than being funded under a specific research grant, the graduate students will have more flexibility to collaborate with other faculty and to undertake interdisciplinary projects, Bruland said.

"I work with other marine science faculty who are more biologically oriented, while I provide the expertise in ocean chemistry, and I'd like to see students working in areas that bridge those different disciplines," he said.

Bruland said he would use some of the funds from the endowment to make his research accessible to a wider audience through articles, lectures, and web sites. He also has plans to develop a display on his research for the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, the public education center at UCSC's Long Marine Laboratory.

Much of Bruland's current research focuses on the chemical factors that allow extensive blooms of single-celled algae, or phytoplankton, to occur in coastal waters. Periodic algal blooms provide the food that ultimately supports productive fisheries and abundant marine life in places like Monterey Bay. Major nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus are key factors in stimulating algal blooms, but trace elements such as iron and zinc also play an important role as micronutrients, Bruland said. In many parts of the ocean, for example, the availability of iron is the limiting factor that determines the abundance of phytoplankton.

By converting sunlight into food energy, phytoplankton provide most of the "primary production" at the base of the marine food chain. In that sense, they are the foundation on which healthy marine ecosystems are built. But there is a dark side to phytoplankton, too--they sometimes produce harmful toxins such as domoic acid. Harmful algal blooms can poison marine birds and mammals, and can even pose a health threat to humans. Bruland's research suggests that trace metals such as iron and copper may play a role in the production of algal toxins.

"In most cases, the algal blooms are good things that help make this region so productive. But sometimes the organisms are harmful, so we're trying to understand what factors trigger the toxin production," he said.

Some trace metals themselves can be toxic to phytoplankton if present in high concentrations. Copper, for example, is a potentially toxic trace metal that is a significant contaminant in some coastal environments, including San Francisco Bay. But the toxicity of copper depends on its chemical form, Bruland said. He and his students have found that copper in San Francisco Bay is primarily bound to organic compounds in a nontoxic form. They are currently studying the sources and characteristics of these copper-binding organic compounds.

There may be a connection between the toxicity of trace metals such as copper and the production of toxic compounds by certain algae. Bruland's group has found that the algal toxin domoic acid, which causes amnesic shellfish poisoning in humans, binds both iron and copper in ways that affect their biological availability--detoxifying the copper and making iron, an essential micronutrient, more available. This suggests a physiological role for domoic acid in the species of algae that produce it.

"The production of domoic acid may be triggered when a bloom of this species is stressed by either copper toxicity or iron limitation," Bruland said.

Bruland's research includes investigations of how trace metals influence the growth of phytoplankton in a wide range of ocean environments. During the summer of 2003, he was chief scientist on a major research expedition to the Bering Sea to investigate the influence of trace metals on phytoplankton productivity in the Bering Sea ecosystem. He is currently involved in a large multidisciplinary effort to study the influence of the vast plume of nutrient-rich water that pours out of the mouth of the Columbia River and mixes into the coastal waters off Oregon and Washington.

Research cruises to study the Columbia River plume are planned for the next three summers, and Bruland plans to develop a web site where he and his coworkers can post reports from the field during the cruises.

"Most of my research gets published in specialized journals, and I'd like to reach out to more general audiences and spread the word about what we're doing. A web site is one way for us to do that," Bruland said.

Bruland is the second faculty member to hold the Ida Benson Lynn Endowed Chair in Ocean Health, succeeding Terrie Williams, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who held the first appointment to the chair.

Bruland received his B.A. in chemistry from Western Washington University and his Ph.D. in oceanography from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. He came to UCSC in 1974 as an assistant professor of marine studies and is currently chair of the Department of Ocean Sciences. He received the Outstanding Faculty Award for 2001-02 from the Division of Physical and Biological Sciences in recognition of his distinguished research career, excellence in teaching, and commitment to service.


Note to reporters: You may contact Bruland at (831) 459-4587 or