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Microbial communities - a missing link in marine conservation?

Jan 12th 2022

Are microbial communities important early indicators of change in the marine environment and can they provide an answer to some of the challenges facing marine conservation programs? These are just some of the questions investigated by a multidisciplinary research team of the MicroLink project led by Dr Ines Petrić from the Laboratory of Environmental Microbiology and Biotechnology at RBI.

Microbial communities - a missing link in marine conservation?

In addition to RBI scientists, the project involves scientists and experts from the Faculty of Food Technology and Biotechnology in Zagreb, the Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries in Split, the University College Algebra, and international colleagues from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research GmbH in Germany, the University of Thessaly in Greece, and the Jožef Štefan Institute in Slovenia.

With anthropogenic pressures drastically altering coastal marine ecosystems, many international efforts have focused on their protection. For this reason, Mediterranean coastal states have adopted numerous regional and international treaties. Although many efforts have been made to protect marine ecosystems by combining and integrating approaches from the Water Framework Directive and the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive, these instruments still face many challenges.

In the MicroLink project, researchers will focus on the effects of anthropogenic pressures on benthic microbial assemblages, which are completely neglected in quality legislation protocols.

''We will address the issue with an innovative approach combining a multitrophic and multilayer approach to study microbial communities in anthropogenically influenced environments compared to reference environments. Microbes dominate marine ecosystems and play a central role in biogeochemical cycling. Consequently, changes at the level of these communities could alter the entire food web and eventually affect marine ecosystem services. In this project, we intend to focus on the urgent need to define the possible contribution and importance of monitoring microbial communities to achieve Good Environmental Status (GES), which could provide us with a first step towards a possible integration of microbial communities as indicators of the quality of the marine environment,'' says Dr Ines Petrić, project coordinator.

The MicroLink project was launched in March 2021 and in the first year the first chemical, geological, toxicological and biological analyzes were carried out on sediment samples collected from 67 different sites in the ports of Rijeka, Pula, Šibenik and Split, as well as in Bakar Bay and Raska Bay, coastal ecosystems defined as 'high risk ecosystems'.

These sites are continuously exposed to multiple pressures from human activities, such as shipyards, tanker and tourist terminals, marinas for nautical tourism, and municipal wastewater discharges, and are continuously 'assessed' as ecosystems with poor or very poor ecological status of water and sediments. Although sediments are complex for research, they were chosen as the matrix for the MikroLink project because they provide a very good insight into the long-term consequences of anthropogenic changes in the environment and their condition is of paramount importance in assessing the overall state of the marine environment.

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"In the MikroLink project, we are interested in answers to two main questions that require a concrete scientific approach to the problem. We will investigate whether we can find universal responses of microbial communities to anthropogenic pollution and at what level within microbial communities the changes are most visible," says Dr. Petrić.

Due to the complexity and diversity of anthropogenic pressures in the coastal zone of the Eastern Adriatic, this project is intended to serve as a scientific 'cornerstone' on this topic and ultimately suggest further testing of the 'microbial indicators' defined in this project. Further research would involve a more comprehensive project that would include other types of anthropogenic pressures.

''The scientific findings of the MicroLink project will certainly help improve existing environmental policies and could potentially help address some of the challenges currently facing marine conservation programs, such as assessing the impact of various pollutants on coastal marine ecosystems, the potential and utility of new biological indicators of environmental status, and the potential of using modern molecular methods in assessing the status of the marine environment and solving the problem of assessing the status of the benthic component of the marine environment,'' the research team believes.

The MicroLink project is funded by the Croatian Science Foundation under the title: 'Structure and function of microbial communities as a missing link in the assessment of the state of the environment in coastal zones under anthropogenic pressure' (IP-2020-02-6510).

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