Water Fleas Get Scratch at Eppley Foundation for Research

Unless you were looking for them, you'd probably miss the Daphnia magna water fleas swimming around you in a lake in the northern United States. But the Eppley Foundation for Research has decided these tiny crustaceans are worth a closer look.

The Eppley Foundation has awarded $25,000 to two researchers at Augsburg College in Minnesota to study the water fleas in the state's numerous freshwater lakes. Matt Beckman and Kevin Potts will use the funding to collect samples of the fleas over the summer and then work with them in the lab. (See Grants for STEM Higher Education).

The goal is to help keep a closer eye on the health of the lakes that are so important to Minnesota's culture, environment, and economy. As it turns out, the Daphnia water fleas are like canaries in a coal mine — they are sensitive to changes in their environment and a common source of food for larger creatures. As a result, Beckman and Potts hope to develop a method to use the fleas' behavior as an indicator of changes in water quality.

As junior members of the faculty at Augsburg's Biology Department, Beckman and Potts are somewhat unusual recipients of Eppley Foundation support. The organization's grants are skewed in favor of older, more established researchers.

However, their focus of their research — an important and threatened ecosystem — is not unusual at all. The Eppley Foundation has a special interest in basic research that addresses climate change and the health of environmental resources.

That focus is demonstrated by another recent study that looked at the genetics of tortoises living on Galapagos Island. Biologists thought a species of tortoise had gone extinct, but the Eppley-backed team from Yale found a number of animals that seemed to be kin to "Lonesome George," the last known member.

"These giant tortoises are of crucial importance of the ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands, and the reintroduction of these species will help preserve their evolutionary legacy," researcher Danielle Edwards said.

Eppley's grants aren’t strictly limited to biology and the environment, however. The foundation is also interested in medical and public health research — for example, a recent project that used network theory to develop an early warning system for outbreaks of infectious diseases. (See IP Guide: Grants for Public Health and Grants for Disease Prevention).

But don't send them your proposal for the latest cancer or heart disease treatment. Grantees should be working in an area that receives relatively scant attention from the major funders like the National Institutes of Health. Eppley is looking for the water fleas of the research world — small and overlooked, perhaps, but vital to their ecosystem.