Not all superheroes wear capes!

Connor Graham, Francis Marion University

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The problem: When you think of superheroes, does the man in the red cape and ‘S’ on his chest come to mind? That’s understandable, but could it be possible that our greatest protectors are embedded in the sediment along our saltmarshes? Well, it is and these potential protectors are known as Benthic diatoms.

Benthic diatoms, plant-like microorganisms, are bioindicators, which means they can be used to determine the health of an environment. In South Carolina, environmental health is crucial to the prospering tourist areas, booming commercial fishing, and overall human health of the year-round residents. Poor environmental health could lead to a decline in economic benefits, decrease in seafood-and-shellfish heavy diets, and the fitness of the human population living in those areas. Benthic microalgae (BMA) are considered to be great bioindicators because of they have a short lifespan, they are abundant, easy to sample, sessile, and respond to specific stimuli (Desrosiers et al. 2013). But the question is can we use diatoms as bioindicators for South Carolina’s various salt marshes? Are they the superheroes we did not even know we had?

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Sampling site at Folly Beach. Photo: Max Cook.

My project this summer consists of sampling saltmarsh mud on at least five barrier islands along South Carolina’s coast to better understand the biogeography of BMA and assess their potential as bioindicators for saltmarshes. Barrier islands are land areas that are now inhabited by humans that protect inland territories from natural disasters.

I am comparing the community structure of the BMA’s on the various islands. If there is little to no variation in the benthic microbial communities gathered from the islands, bioindication can be used to determine their health. To use them as bioindicators will require the community structure to be similar on all the islands.

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Measuring the amount of light at Folly Beach. Photo: Max Cook.

Whether or not the community structure is similar or different will then be compared to the geographical distance of the sample sites and islands. Looking at the biogeography (geographical distribution of living things) of the BMA community has not been a priority, because we assume “everything is everywhere” (Baas-Becking 1934, as cited in Janne Soininen 2012) when speaking of microorganisms. Hopefully, by determining the diatoms’ community diversity on the islands, South Carolina is one step closer to thriving.

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Kristina, Max, and I in the clean room at Hollings Marine Lab analyzing grain sizes of sediment samples. Photo: Jennifer Ness.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank my mentors: Dr. Craig Plante and Kristina Hill-Spanik (CofC). Also, I would like to thank my lab partner Max Cook (CofC). This project is supported by the Fort Johnson REU Program, NSF DBI-1757899.

Literature Cited:

Desrosiers, C., J. Leflaive., A. Eulin. and L. Ten-Hage. (2013) Bioindicators in marine waters: Benthic diatoms as a tool to assess water quality from eutrophic to oligotrophic coastal ecosystems. Ecological Indicators. 32: 25–34.

Soininen J. (2012) Macroecology of unicellular organisms – patterns and processes. Environmental Microbiology Reports, 4(1): 10-22.

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