Developing the macroalgae (seaweeds) as indicator species for marine mortality events: an -omic approach
Over the past few years, marine life worldwide has suffered many mass mortality events, with a prominent recent UK example being the dead and distressed crabs that washed up around Teesside in Oct 2021. The exact causes of these mortality events are many and varied but there is an urgent need to develop tools that will allow us to distinguish between natural (e.g. harmful algal blooms) and anthropogenic (e.g. pollutant release by sediment displacement) causes.
To do this, environmental toxicology has traditionally relied on chemical analyses of waters, tissues and sediments to look for environmental toxins. These are powerful techniques but a drawback is that the effects of toxins may linger (for example, through bioaccumulation) long after the toxins themselves have dropped below any threshold of detection. Similarly, many mortality events result from the interaction of multiple smaller stressors, any one of which may look innocuous on its own. One way to complement chemical analyses is, therefore, to use increasingly cheap and rapid transcriptomic- and metabolomic- based approaches to look at the acute and chronic responses of indicator species. By looking directly at how indicator species are allocating their metabolic resources, we can deliver more subtle answers about the interrelationships that tie together marine species and human activity.
This studentship will, therefore, develop transcriptomic and metabolomic techniques to look at how coastal macroalgae, or seaweeds, respond during marine mortality events along the North Sea coastline. The brown seaweeds (kelps and wracks) are particularly well suited for this work because they are common species that show a range of growth habits (annuals vs perennials). Prior work (as part of the Supervisor 1’s BBSRC SuBBSea and EU FP7 EnAlgae projects) has already developed a range of -omic protocols in these species.
Progress during the studentship will build towards three main goals:
a. To describe the relationship between transcriptome and metabolome in at least two key brown seaweed indicator genera: the perennial wracks (Fucus spp.) and the annual kelps (Laminaria spp.). Work will focus on the Teesside coastline, which is prone to mortality events, but our CASE partnership with The Fishmongers’ Company will allow us quick and responsive access to other coastal regions around the UK.
b. To create digital models of macroalgal metabolism, which will incorporate their responses to xenobiotics (e.g. pollutants, heavy metals) to allow them to be used as baselines to help diagnose ongoing or past mortality events.
c. To develop and encourage the student as an independent researcher
Marine and coastal ecosystems are increasingly under economic pressure, so this studentship represents a clear opportunity for the UK to lead excellence in this area. More broadly, the proposal addresses two of NERC’s Priority Areas (‘Environmental Solutions‘ and ‘Resilient environment’). Results will be based around the mortality events that recur around Teesside but will inform the study of other mortality events worldwide.