Nick Barts

Professional Title:

Graduate Student

University, Department, Lab:

Tobler Lab in the Division of Biology, Kansas State University

Sulphur Molly

Brief Bio:

As a biologist and a person, diversity fascinates me. Growing up in southern Illinois, I went camping and hiking with my family every weekend, and on these trips, I learned about the immense diversity of fish in the creeks and ponds and the insects in the grass and trees. These early lessons about animals and how they interact with their environment lead me down a path towards a career in investigating the mechanisms that animals possess to survive under some of the harshest conditions. My research allowed me to research largemouth bass and other sport fishes from polluted streams in Canada, sharks and bonefish from salt flats in the Bahamas, and fish with white blood from the freezing waters of the Antarctic Ocean (sadly, I didn’t get to actually go to Antarctica, but the Bahamas made up for it). 
My current work on fish inhabiting extreme environments takes place in Southern Mexico, where I study livebearing fishes, particularly the Atlantic molly, that live in naturally toxic water. In each of these environments, the driving goal of my research is to understand the mechanisms of adaptation to harsh environmental conditions. Outside of my research, I’m also an enthusiastic teacher, active proponent of enhancing diversity in STEM fields, avid reader, and a musician (I play trumpet).

Current Research Question:

My current research is guided by a single driving question: What are the mechanisms of adaptation associated with extreme environments? 

Background on Research:

Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is a naturally occurring toxin that is lethal at low concentrations. The primary mechanism of H2S toxicity is the molecule’s ability to stop the major source of energy production in cells, which results in the inability of an animal to continue normal function. Despite this, some populations of the Atlantic molly thrive in H2S rich freshwater springs in Southern Mexico while other nearby, closely related members of the same species cannot survive. My research seeks to investigate what mechanisms the sulfide-tolerant mollies use to survive in these extreme conditions that the sulfide-intolerant mollies lack.


Overview of methods used:

A vast majority of my work looks at the metabolic rates of fish from sulfide-tolerant and –intolerant populations. To calculate the metabolic rate of a fish, I measure the amount of oxygen it consumes over time as a proxy for energy use. I place fish into glass chambers and periodically measure how much oxygen is depleted from the water over the course of ten minutes, and we do this repeatedly for 24 hours. I also study variation in enzyme function for enzymes associated with metabolic and detoxification pathways. These measurements allow me to make inferences about what mechanisms these fish use to tolerate sulfidic conditions in nature. 

Connecting with Nick Barts:

I’m very interested in connecting with public audiences at all levels, and I have experience communicating science in a variety of ways. I have previously worked with a local high school teacher to develop a lesson about sulfide fishes and environmental tolerance and visited the classroom to talk about my experiences as a scientist and what I do for my graduate work. I also am a member of Letters to a Prescientist, an organization that connects current scientists with an elementary school pen pal, which allows me to communicate science with a specific individual and discuss how concepts from STEM fields are important in everyday life as well as in school. Additionally, I would be happy to virtually communicate with classrooms (via Skype or Zoom) or individual students or teachers (via email) to answer questions and talk about my work/what it is to be a scientist. 

Let Sunset Zoo’s Behind the Science staff help you connect with Nick Barts by emailing