The BMA of Today

Christine Hart, Clemson University

2017-06-22 10.29.36

In previous blog posts I described the sand-dwelling microalgae, also known as benthic microalgae (BMA), which are essential to estuary ecosystems. Not only do they produce the air we breathe and food we eat, they also inform us about the subtle changes that are occurring in our environment. Changes that otherwise may go unnoticed.

How do BMA show these environmental changes? By forming the foundation of estuarine energy, they provide a snapshot of how the estuary is functioning as a whole. If changes occur in BMA patterns, this may indicate changes in the overall ecosystem. BMA are also easily characterized and compared using modern molecular approaches. These qualities make BMA living indicators, or bioindicators, that are important in monitoring future ecosystem health.

BMA become visible in the upper layers of sediment at low tide. Later, they decrease in density—or biomass—as the tide rises. Our project studied the mechanism for the increase of biomass during low tide. Previous studies suggested that the mechanism for biomass increase is vertical migration of BMA from lower layers to upper layers of sediment. We also tested whether BMA growth due to high light exposure contributes to the biomass increase.

Our results indicated that both vertical migration and growth due to sunlight exposure were important to the increase in biomass. This is the first contribution to literature that recognizes a multifaceted approach to BMA biomass changes.

Additionally, we studied in how the biomass increase was connected to patterns in the type of BMA in Charleston Harbor. Previous studies suggested that increasing biomass was connected to changes in the abundance of BMA species; therefore, we expected to see the amount of certain BMA species change based on their exposure to migration and sunlight.

We were surprised by our findings. In this study, we found that BMA did not vary over short time periods (by tidal stage or by exposure to migration and sunlight). Instead, we found that BMA varied spatially and over a period of 6 years. In fact, only one of the dominant species of BMA remained the same from 2011 to 2017 (Figure 1).  The long-term change in community coincides with geological changes in the sampling site (Figure 2).


Figure 1. The relative abundance of each dominant BMA species from 2011 to 2017 is shown immediately after sediment exposure (T0) and 3 hours later (TF). Only one species—Halamphora coffeaeformis—remains dominant in 2017. This is evidence of a dramatic change in the dominant type of BMA in Grice Cove.

These are positive results for the use of BMA as bioindicators. If types of BMA are invariable over short periods of time, measurements of BMA will be more precise. Bioindicators must be capable of showing changes that are occurring on a larger environmental scale; therefore, it would be a good sign if the change in BMA community reflects the changing geological environment (Figure 2). Still, more studies on the temporal and spatial patterns of BMA communities should be conducted before BMA can be used as bioindicators.

Changes in Grice Cove

Figure 2. Aerial view of Grice Cove sampling site over time. The approximate location of the sampling site is shown by the white line. Sampling sandbar has changed over time, possibly contributing to community changes. Source: “Grice Cove” 32 degrees 44’58”N 79 degrees 53’45”W. Google Earth. January 2012 to March 2014. June 20, 2017.

This study contributed new information to the studies of BMA biomass during low tide, and showed that the BMA of today in Grice Cove are significantly different than in previous years.


Thank you to my mentor, Dr. Craig Plante, and my co-advisor, Kristina Hill-Spanik, for their support and guidance. This project is funded through the National Science Foundation and supported by College of Charleston’s Grice Marine Laboratory.


Literature Cited:

Holt, E. A. & Miller, S. W. (2010) Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):8.

Lobo, E. A., Heinrich, C. G., Schuch, M., Wetzel, C. E., & Ector, L. (n.d.). Diatoms as Bioindicators in Rivers. In River Algae (pp. 245-271). Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-31984-.

MacIntyre, H.L., R.J. Geider, and D.C. Miller. 1996. Microphytobenthos: the ecological role of
 the “Secret Garden” of unvegetated, shallow-water marine habitats. I. Distribution, abundance and primary production. Estuaries 19:186-201.

Rivera-Garcia, L.G., Hill-Spanik, K.M., Berthrong, S.T., and Plante, C. J. Tidal Stage Changes in Structure and Diversity of Intertidal Benthic Diatom Assemblages: A Case Study from Two Contrasting Charleston Harbor Flats. Estuaries and Coasts. In review.


One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Killifish

Melanie Herrera, U. of Maryland, College Park

After 9 sampling days, 18 collections, and over 3000 fish, we’ve discovered fishes’ habitat preferences are much more complex than we thought. To recap, our hypothesis predicted fish would prefer dense sites of the invasive seaweed, Gracilaria vermiculophylla, over sites with more open water (thus, less Gracilaria).  We also predicted that dense site would have greater diversity by attracting various types of fish due to its branches that conceal fish from predators.

Our belief that Gracilaria would fulfill the refuge effect, attracting more fish and more diverse species, was supported through the copious amounts of fish found in Gracilaria. Despite more abundance in the dense sites of Gracilaria, more diversity was shown in sparse sites (Figure 1). Among both the dense and sparse sites Atlantic Silversides and Bay Anchovies, Pipefish, and Striped Killifish were the most abundant and common species. While similar species occurred in both habitats, the sparse site had more occurrences of species that were considered rare in dense sites. For example, sparse sites had more occurrences of Spade fish and Florida Pompanos than dense sites. Additionally, sparse sites had species of fish such as leatherjackets and lizardfish that never occurred in dense sites.

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Figure 1: Rank abundance patterns of fish in dense sites (represented by triangles) and sparse sites (represented by circles) of G. vermiculophylla at Grice Cove. The number of fishes were calculated as a logarithm as a measure of relative abundance of fish at each site. Species are ranked from most abundant (1) to least abundant (8-10). Slopes show differences in species evenness amongst sites. Steeper slopes exhibit less species evenness.


Supporting our hypothesis, dense sites did demonstrate more abundance. In total, 2944 fish were collected from the dense sites while 361 fish were caught in the sparse sites. It is predicted that smaller-bodied fish used Gracilaria more as a refuge because of their increased vulnerability to threats as small animals. Lack of abundance in sparse sites could be explained by increased exposure to predators and environmental threats.

Increased use of the dense sites shows Gracilaria does contribute towards housing all types of fish, most importantly economically important fishes. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s report on fisheries economic in 2011, the seafood industry alone brings in a minimum of $88 million dollars annually. In order to support this important industry, commercial fisheries can use our research to establish sustainable fisheries by understanding the various habitats that help rear economically important fishes. Our identification of the invasive seaweed’s role on housing fish can be used as a protective measure for these fish in future sustainable management.


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Figure 2: Two of the top three most abundant species collected from dense sites of Gracilaria. (Left: Striped Kilifish; Right: Atlantic Silversides).


Thank you so much to my mentors Dr. Tony Harold and Mary Ann McBrayer for their advice and guidance. This research is funded through the National Science Foundation and College of Charleston’s Grice Marine Lab.


Catch of the Day(s)

Melanie Herrera, University of Maryland College Park

South Carolina is known for its iconic southern cuisine, including a staple of fresh seafood which fuels the buckets of shrimp & grits and “catch of the day”. In order to support this huge industry (and fill the bellies of every South Carolinian), I am conducting an experiment to figure out where this seafood is holing up prior to its demise. Dr. Harold, his graduate student, Mary Ann McBrayer, and I are out on Grice Beach collecting fishes, crabs, shrimps, and much more in order to figure what exactly is there… And what they are using to survive.

Using a seine net, we encircle marine animals in dense and sparse patches of an invasive sea grass, Gracilaria, for collection. We hypothesize that Gracilaria is helping the local economy (a surprising contribution from an invasive species) by creating refuge for young animals. On the beach, we submerge separate samples of animals (from dense versus sparse areas of Gracilaria) into a euthanizing solution to bring them up to the lab for preservation and analysis (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: An example of animals caught in separate habitats at Grice Cove. The left exhibits animals caught in a dense area of Gracilaria and the right exhibits animals caught from a sparse area of Gracialaria. Credit: Melanie Herrera

In the lab, separate samples (dense versus sparse) undergo a few transfers into different fixatives (10% seawater formalin, 25% isopropyl, and 50% isopropyl consecutively) to keep the fish from decaying. After this preserving process, fish and other animals are separated and categorized by family, genus, and species. This categorization enables us to identify and analyze what types of animals and how many of each are using different habitat. Our analysis will give us insight on what type of habitat, either patches dominated by Gracilaria or areas with more open water, benefits fish. Specifically, we will be able to identify if Gracilaria is more advantageous to young fish or if their survivorship is independent from their habitat.

So far, we have collected lots of pipefish, narrow skinny fish that resemble a hair strand-size snake, Atlantic Silversides, a fish that looks exactly like it sounds, and more shrimp than anyone needs (Figure 2). Although some of these animals do not directly contribute to the seafood industry, its presence in the Charleston Harbor can tell us a lot of things. For example, we have seen some fishes that usually stay in warmer waters in the Southern U.S. Their expanding habitat can lead us to some more hypotheses on climate change and warm weather moving northward. In addition, we can find out if Gracilaria has a stake in rearing economically important fish in the future.

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Figure 2: (From left to right) Pipefish, Atlantic Silversides, and Grass Shrimp caught for analysis.Credit: Melanie Herrera

Thank you so much to my mentor Dr. Tony Harold and his lab for his advice and guidance. Thank you to Mary Ann McBrayer for helping me facilitate this project. This research is funded through the National Science Foundation and College of Charleston’s Grice Marine Lab.


Exploring the “Secret Garden”

Christine Hart, Clemson University

Interim report picture

On a walk along the beach, have you ever noticed the garden growing at the water’s edge? During low tide patches of green and gold speckle the sand, growing what researchers have called a “Secret Garden.”

The “Secret Garden” is made up of a variety of microorganisms like cyanobacteria, flagellates, and diatoms. These small, sand-dwelling organisms are collectively known as benthic microalgae (BMA). BMA are responsible for 50% of primary production in estuary systems through photosynthesis and an extracellular polymeric secretion. Though small, these photosynthetic powerhouses form the basis of ocean food webs. BMA are also important indicators of ecosystem health. Scientists have documented the response of BMA to a variety of environmental conditions. As humans change natural estuary conditions, BMA will serve as a bioindicator for changes in ecosystem health.

The visible patches of green and gold at low tide indicate an increasing density—or biomass—of BMA. Currently, researchers do not know the mechanism for the visible change in BMA biomass. Our study will focus on two possible mechanisms of biomass change. One mechanism may be the vertical migration of BMA to the top of the sand.  The increase in biomass could also result from growth among BMA species due to sunlight exposure.

In addition to the unknown mechanism, the particular BMA species associated with the green and gold sheen have not been well studied. Like plants in a garden, BMA species are diverse and serve their own roles in maintaining a healthy environment. To better use BMA as a bioindicator, we will characterize the type of BMA contributing to the visible biomass changes.

Our study will focus on the mechanism of changes in biomass during low tide, while also identifying changes in the presence of BMA species. The results from the study will give us a greater understanding of the BMA that are essential to estuary systems. This information will establish a basis of BMA dynamics that can be used as an indicator of the health of estuaries.

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Thank you to my mentor, Dr. Craig Plante, and my co-advisor, Kristina Hill-Spanik, for their support and guidance.  This project is funded through the National Science Foundation, and supported by The College of Charleston’s Grice Marine Laboratory.


Literature Cited

Lobo, E. A., Heinrich, C. G., Schuch, M., Wetzel, C. E., & Ector, L. (n.d.). Diatoms as Bioindicators in Rivers. In River Algae (pp. 245-271). Springer International Publishing. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-31984-.

MacIntyre, H.L., R.J. Geider, and D.C. Miller. 1996. Microphytobenthos: the ecological role of
 the “Secret Garden” of unvegetated, shallow-water marine habitats. I. Distribution, abundance and primary production. Estuaries 19: 186-201.

Plante, C.J., E. Frank, and P. Roth. 2011. Interacting effects of deposit feeding and tidal resuspension on benthic microalgal community structure and spatial patterns. Marine Ecology Progress Series 440: 53-65.

Rivera-Garcia, L.G., Hill-Spanik, K.M., Berthrong, S.T., and Plante, C. J. Tidal Stage Changes in Structure and Diversity of Intertidal Benthic Diatom Assemblages: A Case Study from Two Contrasting Charleston Harbor Flats. Estuaries and Coasts. In Review.

Underwood, G.J.C., and J. Kromkamp. 1999. Primary production by phytoplankton and 
microphytobenthos in estuaries. Advances in Ecological Research 29: 93-153.


Stressing Out My Algae

Emily Spiegel, Bryn Mawr College

Emily Carboy 170612

One intern’s perspective on lab work, South Carolina, and the coolest organisms in and out of water: phytoplankton.


The lab itself is large, packed to bursting with equipment, boxes, cabinets, monitors, and glassware. An antechamber acts as a sterile room for the most delicate of procedures, demanding precision and care. Many things reside in this room, but never quiet. The constant whirling of a machine’s fan, the hum of a freezer housing samples from a time beyond easy recollection, the typing of a research assistant hunched over innumerable data sheets…all these and more cut through the quiet throughout all hours of the day and night.


And at the heart of it all is the algae.


Small, marine microorganisms constituting a larger class known as phytoplankton, algae are the unsung heros of the environmental world. Energy, or the basic ability to do work, is the key to survival, growth, and reproduction. Without it you (and your genes) aren’t going anywhere. Algae harness the energy readily available from sunlight and convert it into a useable currency in a process known as primary production. This energy is then distributed to the many higher animals that eat them. They are the foundation of the marine food web and of the world’s energy supply, contributing to 45% of the planet’s primary production (Brierley 2017). In short, algae are cool.

So cool in fact, I’ve decided to spend my entire summer studying them. More specifically, I’ll be studying patterns of their reproduction and growth. A grad student running an experiment in this lab last year got unexpected results when she raised algae in 24 hours of continuous light instead of the normal 12 hours of light:12 hours of darkness she had followed previously.  Despite a limitation in the nitrogen added to these samples, which typically inhibits growth, the populations grown in 24 hours of light were able to grow successfully. So researchers went looking for answers.

One potential explanation is that the continuous light conditions caused the induction of sexual reproduction in the algae samples. Algae, like the rest of us, don’t like to be stressed. And being constantly exposed to light, which they automatically begin to utilize for primary production, is very stressful. It’s kind of like giving a kid a bunch of candy bars. A little is nice, a lot induces a sugar high and headaches for anyone within a 20m radius. The algae have too much energy and so they start to adjust their behavior to accommodate for the stressful conditions. One accommodation is sex. That’s right, stress out your algae and they might just turn on the Marvin Gaye and set the mood. Normally the species I’m studying (Fragilariopsis cylindrus, or just Frag for anyone without a PhD) reproduces asexually allowing high growth rates within the population. My lab is also curious as to whether low light conditions (a cycle of 6 hours of light and 18 hours of darkness) might be equally stressful to the algae and cause a similar response.

This is where I come in. This summer I’ll be exposing algae to conditions of varying light and nutrient stress in order to determine if stress actually does cause them to start reproducing sexually. Along the way, we’ll keep track of growth rates by measuring biomass, or the amount of live material within a sample. This can be measured by a variety of cool devices which tell me the number of cells in a particular volume of sample and the amount of chlorophyll being utilized in that sample. Chlorophyll is a component of the cycle of photosynthesis and is therefore a measure of the primary producers (i.e. the algae) in the sample. Eventually I’ll also run genetic analyses, tracking the utilization of genes involved in sexual reproduction as a way to determine if the algae are reproducing sexually instead of asexually.

All in all, it’s bound to be an interesting summer. Full of days at the beach, early mornings with a culture counter, and lots and lots of algae.


I’d like to acknowledge the entire DiTullio/Lee lab at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration as well as the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program organized by the College of Charleston Grice Marine Laboratory. This project would not be possible without the support and guidance from these institutions and individuals. 


Works Cited

Brierley, Andrew. “Plankton.” Current Biology Magazine 27 (2017): 478-83.

Expect the Unexpected in Science


Alessandra Jimenez, Whitworth University

As this internship has recently come to an end, I now begin to reflect on the wonderful yet challenging experience I had conducting observational research on Atlantic brown shrimp (Farfantepenaeus aztecus). In the last few weeks of this 10-week summer program, there was a fascinating yet unexpected turn of events. In particular, results of the experiment pointed to conclusions that I initially found myself unprepared for!

In summary, the focus of this experiment was to test effects of immune response on the ability to escape predators in shrimp. The escape mechanism, called tail-flipping (see video below) is actually powered anaerobically. However, recovery from this energetic behavior absolutely requires oxygen (is aerobic). As further explained in previous blog posts (click here and here), a recently discovered consequence of mounting an immune response against bacterial infection involves depression of aerobic metabolism. So, my mentor and I decided to focus on the recovery aspect (aerobic) of the escape response and predicted that this aerobic process would be impaired in shrimp injected with bacteria. At the same time, we predicted that the anaerobic part of this mechanism would be significantly impacted.

A slow-motion video of an Atlantic brown shrimp juvenile tail-flipping in an experimental tank (c) Alessandra Jimenez

The last few weeks of the internship mainly consisted of analysis, arriving at conclusions, and publicly reporting results. After testing tail-flipping ability (click here for an explanation of how this was tested) in a total of 42 shrimp juveniles, 30 of these were chosen for final analysis. Using a statistics software called Sigmaplot (version 12.5), I conducted tests that basically compared experimental groups based on the two variables I investigated: treatment type (bacteria or saline) and time given after injection (4 or 24 hours). Afterwards, results were deemed important based on significance values assigned by these Sigmaplot tests.

Significant results were very surprising!  Overall, results suggested that metabolic depression (indirectly caused by the immune response) did not have an impact on recovery (aerobic). At the same time, the most unexpected finding of all suggested that bacterial exposure actually increased anaerobic tail-flipping activity in Atlantic brown shrimp juveniles! Thus, this result called for a complete change in focus from the aerobic part to the anaerobic part of this particular escape response.

So, how could I possibly explain the increase in anaerobic processes found through this experiment? After much pondering and going through scientific literature, I formulated a new hypothesis. An important enzyme in crustaceans called arginine kinase is involved in the storage and creation of anaerobic energy that can be used for tail-flipping. Recent studies involved injecting bacteria into live crustacean tissue and comparing arginine kinase expression levels with controls. Results indicated a significant increase in expression in bacteria-injected tissue, especially in abdominal muscle (important for tail-flipping!). Based on these investigations, I now think that there may be a link between immune response and levels of anaerobic metabolism. Further research is required to explore this.

The final stages of the internship included creating and presenting a Powerpoint presentation of our work, and submitting a manuscript of my summer investigation. Overall, this REU internship experience has been challenging yet exciting, and has confirmed my love for marine biological research. As I mentioned at the end of my presentation, “expect the unexpected in science”.

powerpoint presentation - REU 2015

Picture of me right before giving my Powerpoint presentation (c) Alessandra Jimenez


Burnett, L. E., Holman, J. D., Jorgensen, D. D., Ikerd, J. L., & Burnett, K. G. (2006). Immune defense reduces respiratory fitness in Callinectes sapidus, the Atlantic blue crab. Biological Bulletin, 211(1), 50-57.

Gruschczyk, B., Kamp, G., 1990. The shift from glycogenolysis to glycogen resynthesis after escape swimming: studies on the abdominal muscle of the shrimp, Crangon crangon. J Comp Physiol B, 753-760.

Scholnick, D. A., Burnett, K. G., & Burnett, L. E. (2006). Impact of exposure to bacteria on metabolism in the penaeid shrimp Litopenaeus vannamei. Biological Bulletin, 211(1), 44-49.

Yao, C., Ji, P., Kong, P., Wang, Z., Xiang, J., 2009. Arginine kinase from Litopenaeus vannemai: Cloning, expression, and catalytic properties. Fish Shellfish Immunol 26, 553-558.

Many thanks to College of Charleston for hosting my project, Dr. Karen Burnett and Hollings Marine Laboratory for guidance and work space, and NSF for funding the REU program.