Steward and Oceanographer Dr. Steve Morton of NOAA

Dr. Steve Morton (left) and Andrew Shuler (right) with the IT200 at NOAA.
Dr. Steve Morton (left) and Andrew Shuler (right) with the IT200 at NOAA.
From the lush estuaries of South Carolina to the rugged coast of Alaska, researchers and citizen scientists are at work protecting their local waters from Harmful Algae. They collect unusual marine biological samples to send to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Charleston, SC. There, Oceanographer Dr. Steve Morton identifies invasive species and confirms effects of pollution on the marine environment using Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM). He also brings in his own collected samples, sometimes from distant ports.
Morton heads up the microscopy laboratory at the NOAA Hollings Marine Laboratory, where an IT200 SEM is shared by the National Institute of Standard and Technology (NIST), the South Carolina Dept of Natural Resources, the Medical University of South Carolina, and College of Charleston.

Leadership and Support of Citizen Science Programs

Morton’s enthusiasm for oceanographic work is evident through his dedication to investigating environmental impact for NOAA and the organizations’ collaborators, as well as heading up outreach programs. The National Phytoplankton Monitoring Network (PMN), a dedicated community-based network of volunteer citizen scientists - ranging from high school students to retirees located throughout the United States - monitors local waters and consults with Morton on their findings. The Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research (SEATOR), consisting of 16 tribes, monitors toxic plankton blooms that are especially detrimental to shellfish. “Shellfish are a huge part of their culture. They are affected by specific toxin called PSP - Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning. The state of Alaska has no monitoring program for recreational fishing of shellfish, just commercial fishing.” Since the monitoring program was implemented, “nobody’s gotten sick in Southeast Alaska in several years,” Morton says.
Southeast Alaska is a major cruise port, and the identification of an especially large bloom that a ship passed through caused the cruise ship line to join in the effort and raise awareness of the harmful algal blooms (HAB). They now distribute educational materials to passengers.
Plankton Samples. Top Row: 1 and 2) c.furca, Pago Harbor 3) Alaska Orange Goo; Bottom Row: 1 and 2) Gonyaulaux.striata, Grand Cayman 3) Alaska Orange Goo
Plankton Samples. Top Row: 1 and 2) c.furca, Pago Harbor 3) Alaska Orange Goo; Bottom Row: 1 and 2) Gonyaulaux.striata, Grand Cayman 3) Alaska Orange Goo

Highlights of a Lifetime of Marine Botany Work

Dr. Morton’s lifelong research has been primarily focused on marine botany. He is often called on to identify phytoplankton that appears as red tide or harmful algal blooms (HABs). His work takes him to both national and international waters.
What are some of his most memorable projects?
  • Identifying the source of a massive dinoflagellate bloom in the Persian Gulf. The bloom was so large it clogged up desalination plants in Oman and the UAE, and ultimately affected the water supply in those countries. (Richlen, M., S.L. Morton, E.A. Jamail, A. Rajan, and D.M. Anderson. 2010. The catastrophic 2008-2009 red tide in the Arabian Gulf region, with observations on the identification and phylogeny of the fish-killing dinoflagellate Cochlodinium polykrikoides. Harmful Algae 6:163-172.)
  • Identifying a large algal bloom at the major port of the Grand Cayman Island. Partnering with the Cayman Islands Department of the Environment, samples were collected and shipped to Charleston for taxonomic assessment using SEM. The identification of the causative species allowed Grand Caymans to start an effective monitoring program. He explains that the source of such HABs may be the introduction of ballast water from cargo ships that have carried invasive microorganisms from distant ports.
  • Identifying a large algal bloom from Pago Pago, American Samoa linked to over use of nutrient fertilizers on a new soccer field. (Morton, S.L., Shuler, A., Paternoster, J., Fanolua, S., and Vargo, D. 2011. Coastal eutrophication, land use changes and Ceratium furca (Dinophyceae) blooms in Pago Pago Harbor, American Samoa 2007-2009. Chinese Journal of Limnology and Oceanography. 29(4): 790-794; Morton, S.L. and D. Vargo. 2011. Coastal eutrophication, land use changes and Ceratium furca blooms in Pago Pago Harbor, American Samoa-or-why is soccer bad for the environment. J. Phycol. 47(1): 22-23.)
  • Investigating the mysterious appearance of microorganisms on the surface of the water in a small Alaskan town of Kivalina. The 2012 incident became known as the Alaska Orange Goo. After imaging samples in the SEM, he reached out to colleagues and a mycologist at the NY Botanical Garden to identify the organism as a fungus – specifically a spruce mold spore that blew into town during an unusual bout of bad weather that caused the spores to be released.

Using EDS for Trace Evidence of Oil

Perhaps nothing has as devastating an impact on the marine environment as oil spills.
Morton looks at the taxonomy of harmful phytoplankton to see if it is a tracer for oil exposure. He uses the energy dispersive X-ray detector (EDS) – a capability acquired just this year with a new JEOL Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) - to analyze the chemical composition of the samples. “One of the things that you can look for is certain trace metals as indicators of oil exposure,” Morton says. He used this technique to examine samples of Sargassum, the impressively large rafts of macroalgae that float between the islands off Puerto Rico.
Looking for trace evidence extends to other marine life as well. To determine if dolphins had been exposed to oil, he looked at cross sections of dolphin teeth in the SEM using EDS to identify trace metals. At this writing he looks forward to examining the taxonomy of deep-sea coral in the Gulf of Mexico to determine the long-term effects of the BP oil spill.
Using EDS is new to Morton and his technicians in the lab. They replaced their old SEM in 2021 and were able to learn EDS in non-traditional ways due to COVID restrictions keeping him from attending a training class. He consulted with JEOL service engineers. “It’s pretty intuitive once you get it. Steve’s lead microscopy technician, Andrew Shuler, has been here 13 years and is pretty facile with the SEM. He caught on to EDS extremely well,” he says.
Plankton Samples. Cochlodinium.spp
Plankton Samples. Cochlodinium.spp

Getting Onboard with a New Generation of Microscope

Before installing the IT200, Morton had been using the older model JEOL JSM-5600 for about 20 years. “The first SEM I worked on was back in 1984 at Florida Institute of Technology,” he says, adding that “Your service is just phenomenal, that's kind of why I've stuck with JEOL my whole career. I can get on the phone and talk with my local service engineer, Dan Melech, in 10 minutes.”
He notes that each sample he looks at is unique, with different requirements for sample preparation. “It’s kind of fun, you have to be on your toes getting the sample prepped right. You have to desalt marine samples then dehydrate them but make sure the cells don't collapse. There’s a lot of voodoo involved in getting a good clean sample.” They generally don't use a special sample holder. They filter liquid samples onto a filter and just use a critical point dryer then coat them with gold and palladium. “That part really hasn't changed over the years,” he says. But with the more advanced SEM, “Now you just click away don't have to worry.” He is looking forward to using the 3D software when he can.
Collaborative Microscopy Lab
Collaboration with government organizations is routine for Morton. “NOAA is a huge organization and we're doing imaging for a myriad of different sample types. NOAA’s mission is stewardship of nation's oceans. We do lot of fresh-water work, as well, working with the Environmental Protection Agency, National Park Service, and United States Coast Guard.
While the lab only has the SEM, the Medical University of South Carolina has three TEMs that Morton has access to as well. The groups sharing the lab all benefit from his microscopy expertise.
“We did a great project last year partnering the Charleston VA Hospital, MUSC and NIST. We were looking at dust particles affecting the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. I used the SEM to look at different sand particles. What's cool about my job is you get to look at t a lot of different things.” (McDonald, L. T. S. J. Christopher, S. L. Morton and A, C. LaRue (2020) Physical and elemental analysis of Middle East sands from recent combat zones, Inhalation Toxicology, 32:5, 189-199) He also looks at microplastics in the ocean waters in addition to all the marine organisms.
Sharing is part of the nature of his work, and he seems to thrive on getting everyone interested and involved. He also shares the magic of SEM with the citizen scientist volunteers and high school students who watch the process online.
“NOAA is a fantastic agency to work for”, he says. “The great part is the SEM brings out the artistic part of yourself.” Morton received his PhD in Botany at Southern Illinois University after completing his B.S. and M.S. in Oceanography at Florida Institute of Technology. He went on to work at the Bigelow Lab for Ocean Science then got a federal position at NOAA in the late 90s. He grew up on coast of Lake Erie and was “always interested in being on the on beach but I wanted to go somewhere warm.” Wherever he is, you can bet it’s near or in the water.
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