At his research lab in Glendale, Ariz., John VandenBrooks studies how varying amounts of atmospheric oxygen over geologic time influenced the physiology, development, and evolution of animals. In March, Michael Jones McKean and Fathomers went to visit.
VandenBrooks is consulting on McKean’s Atmosphere, which involves replicating an ancient atmosphere within an enclosed environment.
VandenBrooks manipulates the atmospheric composition in controlled chambers by varying the amounts of oxygen, nitrogen, and/or carbon dioxide released into the chamber by individual gas tanks.
A four-channel gas regulator monitors and controls the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere. Sensors within the chamber detect gas levels in real time, enabling the regulator to automatically make slight adjustments as needed to maintain a constant atmosphere.
The atmosphere in this chamber contains 21 percent oxygen, simulating present-day Earth. Cockroaches live on the top shelf; fruit flies live in the vials below.
Other environments in VandenBrooks’ lab contain 31 percent oxygen — akin to the Permo-Carboniferous Period, about 300 million years ago — and 12 percent oxygen, the lowest level present on Earth’s surface since the evolution of vertebrate life.
Cockroaches born and raised in chambers that contain 31 percent oxygen can be seen to increase in size by 20 percent in one generation. (VandenBrooks: "They don't bite!")
A concurrent project is underway in VandenBrooks’ lab to investigate the emerging role of the brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus) as a vector for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever transmission. Tick samples are geo-coordinated with a map (shown here) of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
Supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, Atmosphere is currently imagined as one of a dozen sites in McKean’s long-term, planetary artwork, Twelve Earths.
To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit www.arts.gov.