UC Merced gets major grant to study life in marine lakes

October 9, 2012 

Researchers at UC Merced are conducting a five-year investigation into environmental changes in marine lakes, including why some species adapt while others go extinct, thanks to a $1.9 million National Science Foundation grant.

Researchers will study the climate in Palau, an island country in the western Pacific Ocean, to see how it influences changes in lakes' temperature, circulation, salinity and oxygen levels.

They will look at past and present microbes, algae and animals to see how they are affected by the climate and its changes, according to a university press release.

Professor Michael Dawson, an evolutionary ecologist and the principal investigator, and professor Michael Beman, a marine microbial ecologist and coprincipal investigator, recently received the award.

It was awarded through the NSF's Dimensions of Biodiversity initiative to promote "integrative, innovative approaches to fill the most substantial gaps in our understanding of the diversity of life on Earth," according to the agency's Web site.

Lake sediments provide important records of climate and species' community changes for the past 15,000 years, said Dawson, who works in the university's School of Natural Sciences.

"We're trying to unify understanding of physical and biological dynamics," he said.

Researchers can use those sediment records to relate patterns of environmental change to species in the lakes. It might enable them to better predict how changes will affect other marine ecosystems and the services they provide to humans, according to the release.

The team includes UC Merced professor Francois Blanchette, a mathematician who studies fluid dynamics, and Jessica Blois, a paleoecologist who's joining the UC Merced faculty in January.

Another collaborator, Julian Sachs, a paleoclimatologist from the University of Washington, gets a portion of the grant, leaving $1.37 million in funding for UC Merced researchers, staff and students.

The team's worked for several years on analyses that laid the groundwork for this project.

Marine lakes contain seawater and connect to the ocean through tunnels or fissures in rocks. They remain isolated enough that some species evolve quite differently than relatives in nearby oceans.

The lakes weren't widely studied until the 1970s. Similar lakes exist elsewhere, such as other Pacific locations, Russia, Vietnam and the Adriatic, according to the release.

"These lakes are the marine analogs of the Galápagos Islands, the origins of modern evolutionary thought in terrestrial systems," according to the Web site of the Coral Reef Research Foundation, which collaborates on the Palau research.

Beman's work focuses on microbial communities in the lakes.

"Most people are familiar with bacteria and viruses that cause disease, but microbes play many important roles in the environment. For example, they conduct about half of all photosynthesis on Earth; if you add up their total mass, it may be equal to that of all plants," Beman said.

Using advanced DNA sequencing, he'll get detailed views of the microbial communities and can see whether they have changed over time the way the other biological communities have. The researchers will examine interactions among microbes and large organisms, the release said.

Blanchette and graduate student Sydney Montroy are modeling the changes in the lakes over time -- temperature, salinity and oxygen -- to develop a more efficient way of predicting how changes will affect other such lakes, even those that have different species and conditions.

The project's groundwork was partly funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which has given $400,000 so far, and agreed to give $200,000 more this year.

The money helps train western Pacific scientists in their own unique marine lake resources.

UC Merced has recently established an Agreement of Cooperation with the State University of Papua (UNIPA) in West Papua, Indonesia.

The agreement will help the UC Merced team and collaborating scientists at UNIPA conduct research in additional marine lakes around the islands. It also links UNIPA to UC Merced and its research.

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