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Scienceline

Biologist David Gruber studies glowing creatures, glowing proteins, and many other things under the sun

Glowing green and swimming off the corner of the picture, the eel looked unnatural, as if it had been Photoshopped with DayGlo colors. David Gruber says, “that darn eel" led to a 300-mile eel-catching expedition from Little Cayman to the sandy beaches of Lee Stocking Island in the Bahamas.

Gruber teaches biology and environmental science at Baruch College in Manhattan, but his passion is scuba diving with dinoflagellates, single-celled bioluminescent organisms. His group’s glowing photographs of underwater Caribbean creatures -- sea anemones, coral, and fishes -- illuminate the new Creatures of Light exhibit, a show at the American Museum of Natural History themed around all things bioluminescent (producing their own light) or biofluorescent (absorbing light and reemitting it as a different color).

Vibrant photos of the coral wall give visitors a virtual night dive experience even if they’ve never donned a wetsuit. “When you swim in the water at night, it’s like a disco party,” Gruber says.

Instead of teaching this past semester, Gruber worked on the exhibit, with the help of a National Science Foundation grant. In addition to the glowing photo wall of Little Cayman’s reefs, he worked with museum artists and scientists to perfect the magnified dinoflagellate and jellyfish models. Gruber, who trained as a journalist and has a reporter’s passion for accuracy, even brought in a spectrometer to ensure the light in the exhibit matched nature’s luminescent wavelengths.

Live flashlight fish, filled with bioluminescent bacteria, contribute to the exhibit as well, blinking what looks like a secret code to passers-by. “They’re so stressed out right now,” Gruber says, looking concerned as he leans closer to their tank. “It’s a really energetic process to glow.”

It takes energy to pursue glowing coral and fish, too -- and to discover new eels. When Gruber saw his colleague Jim Hellemn’s photo of the green serpent, he thought Hellman was playing a practical joke. Skepticism turned to enthusiasm when the researchers realized the eel was a previously unknown fish living in a biofluorescent reef. “From that point we wanted to get this eel,” Gruber says.

His diving group flew to the Bahamas, zipped on their wetsuits, and spent hours catching and cataloging fish. They gave most of the specimens to the museum, but Gruber kept the eel, storing it in a freezer at his Gramercy lab. He is purifying its fluorescent proteins and hopes they can someday be used as luminescent tags in biomedical research.

At 39, Gruber is a real up and coming guy, says Vincent Pieribone, a neurobiologist at Yale University School of Medicine. “He’s a practicing scientist, but he’s got a knack for the communicating aspect, which is rare in our field.”

Pieribone would know. They spent two years writing a book about biofluorescence and bioluminescence called “Aglow in the Dark,” shortly before the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three scientists who advanced fluorescent protein research.

Gruber and Pieribone, who met through Pieribone’s girlfriend, now wife, once spent an entire month together in Australia collecting fluorescent creatures in 2002. “We’ve been having a bromance for years,” Pieribone says.

Gruber’s love of the water began as a child in New Jersey. During family vacations, he learned how to boogie board in the waters of Malibu, California. At the University of Rhode Island, he surfed with friends before morning oceanography classes.

He found his calling in Belize, studying reef fish during his junior year. He spent hours every day catching fish, suturing glow sticks to their bodies and tracking their movements in the reef at night.

“You start to see there’s a community down there,” he says. “You come across the same fish every day and you know which rock he’s under. You know where the eel is, where the octopus is.”

Following graduation, Gruber worked as a bicycle messenger in Washington, D.C. until he landed an internship with the Smithsonian Institution and flew to Guyana in South America to research forest diversity. Most days, he climbed trees and fended off mosquitoes.

But trees aren’t underwater, so he left the Smithsonian for Duke University, where he studied climate change’s effects on the oceans, a factor in the death of coral colonies. Then he worked for the South Florida Water Management District, measuring the water quality and sea grass in Florida Bay. The project was constantly in the press. Inspired by investigative reporter and novelist Carl Hiaasen’s stories about swamp destruction, Gruber offered to share a firsthand account about the restoration effort.

But “nobody would publish my work because they said I wasn’t a journalist,” he says. “So I applied to journalism school.” One of his journalism professors at Columbia, Sig Gissler, remembers Gruber as earnest, engaging and energetic. “We called him a man of science with a soul of a reporter because while he didn’t have a lot of experience -- he was total rookie -- he made up for it with tenacity.”

The tug of the water pulled him back to research, and Gruber powered through the next six years, earning his doctorate in biological oceanography at Rutgers University. Few scientists knew the complete history of fluorescent protein research, so he and Pieribone wrote a book about how the bioluminescent jellyfish changed the face of modern biological science. “It was just a really nice narrative,” Gruber says, “but it was a difficult narrative because your main character is a protein.”

Undeterred, they traveled across the U.S., Australia, and Russia to interview the researchers whose work led to the famous green fluorescent protein that would win the Nobel. Some sources were reserved so Pieribone, a neurobiologist, let Gruber take the lead. “He was more subtle,” Pieribone says. “He was more of a journalist. I have a huge respect for those skills.”

The duo published their book with Harvard University Press in 2005 as Gruber moved to Brown University for post-doctoral study on ways to use fluorescent proteins as biological sensors. Researchers can introduce these glowing proteins into cells to track all kinds of activity, including the growth of tumors or chatter between nerve cells.

“Very little is known about how widespread of a phenomenon biofluorescence is in nature, even though it has proven to be valuable as a tool for biologists and medical scientists,” says Dan Tchernov, head of marine biology at the University of Haifa. He has co-authored several papers with Gruber, and noted that because researchers lack a remote operated vehicle to study deep reefs, Gruber is building one. “Dave is well regarded and a very promising researcher who can successfully bridge sciences,” he says.

Now at Baruch, Gruber chases an ever-expanding array of projects on the side. “I love studying all life forms and their beautiful interconnections,” he says. Recent projects include a 2010 study about correlations between autism and cancer and a current project on the epigenetics of diabetes. All the while, he’s been collecting fluorescent proteins and co-producing an IMAX film about bioluminescence. He, Pieribone, and colleagues have published a cascade of studies about fluorescent proteins, including a 2010 paper describing the world’s brightest -- a glowing green protein from a warm water coral.

Pieribone praises his friend’s creativity, but says it impedes Gruber’s career. “He doesn’t stress the things in an academic career that will make him a full professor at Harvard,” Pieribone says. “You have to be really focused and Dave just doesn’t want to focus that heavily on one thing.”

“He’s like the indie film director,” Pieribone says. “He’s not the one who sells a lot of movie tickets, he’s not the Michael Bay, but he makes the better movie.”

This article originally appeared at Scienceline, a project of New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.

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Before joining NYU’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting program, Laura worked at two labs and studied English literature and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. She has interned at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer health desk ... READ MORE >
The Nissan NV200
Hybrid taxicabs are on the rise, but their growth is limited

At 1:30 in the afternoon in New York City’s East Village, First Avenue becomes a blacktopped river banked by the bright yellow bodies of taxicabs. The cabs line up bumper-to-bumper: wide-hipped Crown Victorias, snub-nosed Priuses, and boxy Escapes. Their owners filter out onto the sidewalks and head north toward the Medina Masjid mosque on 11th Street for the 2:00 p.m. prayer call. By 3:00, the curbs are empty; the cabs have filtered back into the streams of cars flowing through the Manhattan grid.

On a chilly spring afternoon, cabbie Mazuman Subhani, a towering man with a downy black beard and a cream-colored Morrocan cap, pulls his traditional Crown Victoria out of traffic and into this scene. He parks between 10th and 11th Streets to prepare to pray. He likes his cab, but he has friends who save a lot of money on gas by driving hybrid cab models. “It costs $37 to $38 to drive this car 100 miles,” Subhani says, motioning to his Crown Vic on the First Avenue curb. “For a new hybrid model, it costs $10 to $12.”

Had Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s wishes been granted, every cab parked on First Avenue -- or motoring anywhere in New York City -- would be a hybrid. In 2007, Bloomberg mandated that his city’s entire taxicab fleet be hybrids by 2012. But any New Yorker can glance down an avenue and see that Bloomberg’s mandate fell through. While almost half of the 13,000-vehicle taxi fleet is currently hybrids, half isn’t. Moreover, within a few years there will be far fewer hybrid cabs than there are now.

Bloomberg’s failure to create an all-hybrid taxi fleet was triggered by opposition from lobbyists representing taxi drivers and fleet owners. These lobbyists successfully sued the city over the mandate because they did not want to be forced to buy cars they considered less sturdy and safe than the time-tested Ford Crown Victoria. While many cabbies and fleet owners have bought high-mileage cars anyway, next year the choice of taxicab models on the market will get a lot narrower. Most cab owners will be forced to buy the city’s newly chosen official taxicab -- and it’s not a hybrid.

Back in 2007 when Bloomberg proposed his hybrid taxicab mandate, he was trying to reach a larger goal. His overarching environmental plan for the city, PlaNYC, calls for a more than 30 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions between 2005 and 2030. Since on-road vehicles are responsible for around 20 percent of the city’s carbon emissions, Bloomberg declared that all new taxicabs hitting the streets in 2008 get at least 25 miles per gallon and get 30 miles per gallon each year after that. As the lifespan of a New York City taxicab is only five years, his plan meant that the whole fleet would have been converted to high fuel efficiency vehicles by 2012, saving city air from carbon emissions equivalent to burning enough coal to fill 1,000 train cars.

Bloomberg’s plan drew some critics, however. The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, a politically powerful collective of taxicab owners, argued that hybrid vehicles -- the only vehicles that got 25 to 30 miles per gallon in 2007 -- did not satisfy the safety and durability standards set by New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission for all cars that operate as taxicabs, says MTBOT lobbyist Michael Woloz.

“They were just hybrid passenger cars that some owners were painting yellow, outfitting with a partition and a roof light and calling taxicabs,” says Woloz. Only Ford Crown Victorias truly meet TLC standards because they’re built specifically for use as taxicabs. He says the city cannot require cabbies to drive any particular car if that car isn’t as durable on the streets as the Crown Victoria.

On that basis, the MTBOT and a few other taxicab organizations sued the city in 2008, calling Bloomberg’s mandate illegal. The judge on the case sided with the taxicab organizations and cancelled Bloomberg’s mandate in 2009, but not because hybrid cars don’t meet operational standards for taxicabs. Instead, the judge found Bloomberg lacked the authority to create emissions laws.

The Clean Air Act states that only the federal government can impose laws regarding fuel efficiency and mileage, says Allan Fromberg, a spokesperson for the TLC. “In other words,” Fromberg says, “the clean air laws don’t allow us to clean the air.”

Despite this legal setback, the number of hybrid taxicabs in New York City continued to steadily grow, says Fromberg. Of the more than 13,000 taxicabs now on the road, nearly 6,000 of them are hybrids. This means the percentage of hybrid taxicabs being driven has risen from less than 20 percent to more than 40 percent in the past five years.

“Regardless of the lack of a mandate,” Fromberg says, “people realize that it is a very wise decision to buy a hybrid and have been voluntarily purchasing them.” There are currently around 16 car models that have been authorized by the commission to serve as taxicabs, including hybrids such as the Toyota Camry Hybrid, the Ford Escape Hybrid, and the Toyota Prius.

A taxicab with a day driver and a night driver cruises the streets of New York City for at least 20 hours a day. That’s a lot of road time, which is why cabs can easily rack up around 1,300 miles a week. By driving a hybrid Toyota Prius, a cabbie could burn 50 gallons less fuel each week than if he or she drove a standard taxicab like Ford’s Crown Victoria, saving $20 to $25 a day on gas.

Saving money by driving a hybrid might be a straightforward choice for drivers who own their own cabs, but many cabbies lease their cabs from fleet owners. Muzaman Subhani is one of these cabbies, and he drives whatever the fleet owner gives him -- a Crown Victoria, in his case. According to Fromberg, fleet owners often buy Crown Victorias en masse, because the parts can easily be traded from car to car. If one car’s body is junked, for example, a fleet owner can take its functional brake pads and transfer them to a car with bad brakes.

Because of the gas money saved by hybrid drivers, though, it might seem reasonable to imagine that even fleet owners could be swayed to invest heavily in hybrid models over the next few years. Perhaps the percentage of hybrid cabs in New York City could keep growing until every cab lining First Avenue in the early afternoon or whipping through city streets is a hybrid. But this will almost certainly not be the case, because the NV200s are coming.

Beginning in October of 2013, an army of square-shouldered vans will replace the plethora of taxicab models that now reign on the roads. Over five years, the city will require all of its taxicab drivers without special wheelchair or hybrid taxi licenses (there are currently only around 300 hybrid licenses) to replace their old vehicles with a single model.

The model the city has chosen and dubbed the “Taxi of Tomorrow” is the Nissan NV200. While the Nissan should get around 25 miles per gallon (a major improvement when compared to the Crown Vic’s 14 miles per gallon), it’s no hybrid, which can get twice as many miles per gallon than the Nissan.

Though it seems like tomorrow’s taxi should be a more environmentally friendly car, hybrids weren’t even among the cars suggested as potential models for the new official cab, according to Johanna Dyer. Dyer is a lawyer with the National Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth) who specializes in New York’s environmental initiatives. She says the city could not consider a hybrid model as the Taxi of Tomorrow because of the same law that cancelled Bloomberg’s 2007 mandate -- city governments can’t require anyone to buy a high fuel efficiency vehicle.

Nissan is planning to test six electric NV200s in the upcoming years, but Dyer says that as far as she’s aware the contract between NYC and Nissan doesn’t require Nissan to develop a significant number of durable electric cabs. “If Nissan and the city don’t work together to ensure a path to cleaner-running vehicles,” says Dyer, “then this Taxi of Tomorrow could be a missed opportunity for New York to set an example of sustainability for other cities.”

Like the Crown Vic, the traditionally fueled NV200 will be built specially for taxicab use and should meet the safety and durability standards that the taxicab organizations require.

The MTBOT is not easily pleased, though. Woloz says the organization supports the idea of creating a “super taxi” but isn’t sure the idea has been realized in the NV200. He says the only way to know if a car will be a good taxi is to put it on the streets and see how it holds up. “Time will tell as to whether the end product meets the expectations that we all have,” says Woloz.

He says that not many cars can withstand the abuse a taxicab suffers -- passengers kicking seats, slamming doors, and banging into partitions for over 20 hours a day. That’s why the MTBOT is suspicious of cars, like the Toyota Prius, that are merely painted yellow and put on the street as a cab.

Subhani is less critical of the cabs he and his friends drive. Last month he went to the trade commission's headquarters in Manhattan to preview the NV200. “Inside is beautiful,” he says. There’s no rise in the floor at the center console in back, so if he has three passengers, the middle person doesn’t have her knees bumping into her chin. The floor is also rubber like the floor of a bus -- very durable and easy to clean.

“Everybody’s excited,” says Subhani. For him, as for those supporting the Taxicab of the Future, it seems the utility of the cab trumps the fuel efficiency.

This article originally appeared at Scienceline, a project of New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.

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Kelly Slivka has a B.A. in English and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado and has spent the past three years stalking endangered whales on the East Coast for various conservation and research institutions. She's currently enrolled in ... READ MORE >
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