Researchers are learning more about the colorful bacterial mats that threaten the ecological health of coral reefs around the world. In a new study published this month, a team from Florida State University found that these mats are more complex than scientists knew before, and opened the door to many questions about how best to protect reef ecosystems in the future.
“By studying the full biodiversity of these mat communities on reefs and examining the transcriptome that gives us information about what biochemical processes are used by these organisms, we are opening the door to a more complete understanding of the full ecological role of mats,” said McCoy .
Although these cyanobacteria mats have been studied in the past, scientists focused on characterizing the cyanobacteria. Cissell and McCoy found that cyanobacteria only made up about 47.57% of the mats. Their analysis showed that mats also contained a type of algae called diatoms, fungi, a unicellular organism called archaea, viruses, and other forms of bacteria.
“We know from other well-characterized systems that even in flower-forming scenarios, cyanobacteria are associated with a variety of other microorganisms that make a significant and unique contribution to the overall dynamics and ecophysiology of these cyanobacteria-dominated consortia,” said Cissell. “We wanted to find out whether similar associations were found in proliferating cyanobacterial mats on coral reefs.”
Cyanobacterial mats are a major concern for coral reef health. Coral reef bacteria have always played an important role in these ecological communities, but the growth – largely attributed to local and global climate stressors – has completely wiped out the life of precious corals.
The bacteria used to cover about 1% of the reefs, but that has grown to 20-30% in some places.
The researchers said that this better understanding of the communities that make up the mats leads to more questions about how the mats form and grow.
“This means that the mechanisms that control mat bloom dynamics on coral reefs are likely to be more complex than previously thought,” said Cissell. “These data, which we present, provide important foundations for the future mechanistic investigation of the processes that drive the growth, persistence and decline of benthic cyanobacteria mats.”
McCoy and Cissell carried out 29 diving expeditions in Bonaire, a Dutch island community off the coast of Venezuela, for the project. They are currently performing genetic sequencing on mat samples to better understand the daily patterns of the communities that make up the mat. They also study samples taken from a dying mat to better understand the compositional and function-related shifts associated with mat death.
Her work was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Phycological Society of America.
Materials provided by Florida State University. Originally written by Kathleen Haughney. Note: the content can be edited by style and length.
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