The Ocean's biomass and diversity are predominantly microbial, yet this aspect of diversity remains underexplored. Efforts in recent years have begun to document microbial diversity in marine systems, and to elucidate the processes that structure assemblages across space and time. This project focuses on two important sister clades of microbial eukaryotes, the oligotrich and choreotrich ciliates. These organisms comprise a major component of planktonic food webs as they graze on phytoplankton, and are in turn eaten by zooplankton and larval fish.

Earlier molecular work on ciliate diversity relied on light microscopy, construction of clone libraries and Sanger sequencing. This revealed a high degree of cryptic diversity (similar species that are genetically distinct), which is surprising, given the long-held idea that all microbes are globally distributed and that few species exist, at least as compared to animals and plants. This past work also showed that ciliate assemblages contain a few highly abundant forms and many rare ones, consistent with the concept of a "rare biosphere". However, these methods are limited by high costs of both labor and materials, so that efforts to sample any local assemblage comprehensively usually resulted in undersaturation (repeated sampling continued to uncover new species). Next generation approaches are needed to truly assess the depths of biodiversity in planktonic ciliates.

This project brings together investigators with strengths in ecology, taxonomy and oceanography (PI McManus) and in molecular evolution, systematics and bioinformatics (PI Katz). Pyrosequencing will be used to sample the oligotrichs and choreotrichs "to exhaustion" in coastal environments. Denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE), a technique that generates a fingerprint of the diversity in a sample, will be used to pre-select samples for pyrosequencing based on where strong gradients are observed in the composition of assemblages in relation to environmental factors (density fronts, thermoclines, etc.). Using these approaches, combined with an informatics pipeline already in place, this project addresses three specific objectives:

Objective 1. Determine the spatial scale of variability in ciliate diversity by measuring how ciliate assemblages change over meter, kilometer, 100 km, and basin scales. Objective 2. Assess the contributions of different size classes of ciliates to overall assemblage diversity. Objective 3. Experimentally evaluate factors that control the temporal shift of individual species from rarity to commonness in a natural assemblage, and vice versa.

BROADER IMPACTS: A program to involve K-12 teachers in research, initiated under a previous award, will be continued. For the past three years, teachers have been hosted at the UConn marine labs, where they conducted independent research, learned to sample and enumerate plankton, and developed teaching resources for subsequent use in the classroom. In this project the program will be adapted to accommodate the shorter, more intense experiences most teachers prefer, and to incorporate an instructional component in broader marine sciences. In addition to the teacher program, this project will involve training of postdoctoral fellows and undergraduates. This will include cross-disciplinary work through exchanges between the PI laboratories, with a focus on experimental design, data collection/analysis, and manuscript preparation. Both PIs are committed to involving students from underrepresented groups in their research, and PI Katz maintains intensive recruiting efforts in this area. Hence, the project will further increase the diversity of researchers studying biological oceanography.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE)
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David L. Garrison
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University of Connecticut
United States
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