IMET Researchers Launch Chesapeake Bay Metagenomics Study

A team of scientists from the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology are launching an ambitious research project that uses DNA cloning and sequencing techniques to reveal the yet-to-be understood complexity of Chesapeake Bay microorganisms. The research team, led by UMCES@IMET scientist Dr. Russell Hill, hopes to use this information to develop new approaches to restoring the region’s iconic waterbody.

Yoni Zohar, Russell Hill, Allen Place, Feng Chen

Drs. Yoni Zohar, Russell Hill, Allen Place and Feng Chen are launching a metagenomic analysis of microorganisms in the Chesapeake Bay.

The project, initiated with a $100,000 federal grant, seeks to revolutionize our understanding of microbial processes.  By focusing on the Chesapeake Bay - the largest, and most complex and productive estuary in the United States – the scientists will apply advanced metagenomics to the microbial communities that serve to cycle nutrients and remove them from the ecosystem.  With strong environmental gradients, the Chesapeake provides an ideal model system for integrated investigations on composition and function of microbial communities.

"This research has the potential to catalyze new ideas that can help solve some of the Chesapeake’s most pressing problems," said UMCES@IMET scientist Dr. Feng Chen. "By advancing our understanding of microbial processes, metagenomic approaches will build capacity for technologies and resource management strategies to sustain this unique Maryland natural resource."

Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger presents a check to Dr.  Feng Chen

Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger and Dr. Feng Cheng at a project launch event.

As a first step in the metagenomic analysis of microbial communities in the Chesapeake Bay, the team will apply molecular approaches to more fully characterize the diversity of microalgal communities in the Chesapeake Bay. Photosynthetic microalgae represent an extremely diverse group of microorganisms in the biosphere. As the primary producers in the Bay’s food web, microalgae play a critical role in global biogeochemical cycling. More than 40,000 species of algae have been identified, and many still remain to be characterized. 

Most of our knowledge about the microalgal community in the bay is based on microscopic examination, a traditional tool for identifying algal species.  However, the majority of microalgae are either too small or lack sufficient morphological details to be differentiated under the microscope. Their true diversity is often underestimated using traditional approaches. The application of molecular approaches, such as cloning and sequencing or pyrosequencing, have demonstrated that the diversity of small eukaryotic phytoplankton is much more extensive than previously thought.

Although phytoplankton biomass and production in the Bay have been well studied, little is known the community structure of phytoplankton and how they respond to dynamic light and hydrological changes.

Collaborating on the project are UMCES@IMET scientists Drs. Feng Chen, Russell Hill, and Allen Place and Dr. Yonathan Zohar from UMBC's Department of Marine Biotechnology which is also part of  the Institute for Marine and Environmental Technology located at the Columbus Center in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

microalgae culture

The diverse and colorful microalgal world shown in one culture plate. The water sample was taken from the Chesapeake Bay, and spread onto an agar plate containing algal medium. This image shows the colorful microalgal colonies examined under a dissecting microscopy with 10x magnification. Photo by Dr. Feng Chen.

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