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Marine biologists gather data on climate change at research hotspot

Backed by new funding, a USC team studies the San Pedro Basin ecosystem

researchers aboard Yellowfin
From left, doctoral student Diane Kim, SPOT coordinator Troy Gunderson and doctoral student David Needham aboard the research vessel Yellowfin
(Photo/Cheryl Chow)

At a station in the San Pedro Basin, a region between Los Angeles Harbor and Catalina Island, faculty and student researchers from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences study the physical, biological and biogeochemical cycles that define the coastal ocean’s ecosystem.

Located 10.5 miles offshore, the research site is called the San Pedro Ocean Time-series (SPOT). Nearly two decades ago, the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies (WIES) founded the site, which it has continually supported.

For much of that time, Jed Fuhrman, holder of the McCulloch-Crosby Chair in Marine Biology and professor of biological sciences, and David Caron, professor of biological sciences, have consistently received grants to conduct studies there. In all, the National Science Foundation’s Microbial Observatories and Dimensions of Biodiversity programs have contributed $4.3 million.

At the coastal station, research teams catalogue the dynamics and diversity of microbial populations. Teams include undergraduate and graduate students, and several Ph.D. theses in marine environmental biology and earth sciences have derived from research at the SPOT.

NSF has recently supported a major upgrade of the conductivity, temperature and depth instruments at the SPOT. The Rosette device allows researchers to collect samples and profile biological, chemical and physical parameters in the water.

Data is gathered on the water’s temperature, salinity, microbiological and chemical levels. Investigations are conducted as part of monthly measurements of the marine microbial community in a sea water column stretching from the ocean’s surface down to nearly 3,000 feet below sea level.

The research is crucial because understanding the structure, and seasonal and long-term variability of the microbial populations at the site contributes to a better understanding of the ocean in general and the effects of global climate change specifically. This is particularly important given that the SPOT is a marine setting that borders a densely populated major urban area, the greater Los Angeles Basin.

New dollars, new data

Researchers at the SPOT recently received nearly $3 million to continue their efforts.

A $2 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation will fund additional investigations and quarterly cruises for Fuhrman’s research team. This research aims to build a more holistic view of the microbial community by taking an integrative, interdisciplinary approach to the analyses.

“What usually happens in science is that people specialize in something,” Fuhrman said. “Everyone knows their specialty, but it’s difficult to know how everything fits together. With our Moore funding, we’re looking at viruses and the community of microorganisms including bacteria, archaea, protozoans and phytoplankton. We’re trying to see how they interact, hoping we’ll get better insights into how the system is controlled.”

Over the summer, Doug Capone, holder of the William and Julie Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and professor and chair of biological sciences, received a competitive grant of nearly $1 million from NSF to study the nitrogen cycle at the SPOT. This will be conducted in addition to the ongoing research by Fuhrman and Caron.

It’s the first time I’ve gotten formal funding to work in the Southern California Bight, and it really expands the repertoire of things we’re doing out there.

Doug Capone

Capone, principal investigator for the research, is joined by Alyson Santoro of the University of Maryland and Xavier Mayali of Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California.

“I’m very excited about this grant because it’s the first time I’ve gotten formal funding to work in the Southern California Bight, and it really expands the repertoire of things we’re doing out there,” Capone said. “Plus, we’re going to be using some very state-of-the-art tools.”

Microbial genetics

Fuhrman will continue his research related to controls on microbial community composition and the relationships among groups of organisms. He and his research team have focused on how marine microbial communities respond to natural events and human-induced disturbances, observing how these communities adapt and function over time.

NSF funding in recent years has allowed for more detailed genetic analyses of these microbes. Genomics expert John Heidelberg, associate professor of biological sciences, was brought in along with computational biology specialists Fengzhu Sun, professor of biological sciences and mathematics, and head of USC Dornsife’s computational biology program, and Ting Chen, professor of biological sciences and computer science.

These researchers are taking a detailed look at genetics to understand microbe functions, explaining complex life-science processes in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry.

Caron will continue his research to define the roles of protists in the ecology and biogeochemistry of aquatic ecosystems. Protists are a large and diverse group of eukaryotic microorganisms, which belong to the kingdom Protista. His work is focused on characterizing the diversity of communities of protists in various ecosystems around the world, establishing their basic physiologies, how they make a living and how fast they grow.

Linda Duguay, director of research for the USC Wrigley Institute, said the additional funding is a recognition of the importance of the SPOT site for oceanographic research in the urban ocean.

“We are committed to continuing our support of SPOT,” she said.

WIES Director Roberta Marinelli praised the research.

“The only way to understand human impacts on climate and the coastal ocean is to study basic processes. How does our natural environment work and how do our actions affect it? The SPOT is a critical asset that allows us to answer these questions.”

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Marine biologists gather data on climate change at research hotspot

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