UP and partners awarded EU grant to study South Atlantic microbiomes

Posted on September 26, 2020

The University of Pretoria (UP) is part of a consortium that has been awarded €11 million (about R 216 million) to study the microbiomes in the South Atlantic Ocean.

The Atlantic ECOsystems assessment, forecasting and sustainability (AtlantECO) initiative involves 36 partners from the European Union, Brazil and South Africa. The consortium is coordinated by the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Italy (a marine biological research station where scientists and students from all over the world can perform their research on fresh material or even living marine organisms). Other partners are from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, the University of Bern, the University of Liverpool and other leading institutions.

The Microbiome Research Group at UP, led by Professor Thulani Makhalanyane of the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics, Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology, is a lead partner of AtlantECO. The term microbiome is used to collectively describe microorganisms (that is bacteria, fungi, archaea and viruses), their genomes and their habitats. These microbiomes are found everywhere including in human guts, in soils and the oceans. Prof Makhalanyane explained that “Microbiomes are complex and difficult to study in their natural environments. One of the reasons is that they are abundant and may be in the order of millions within a 1ml of seawater. The scale of this complexity is increased in the oceans due to the four-dimensional structure and the fact that these microbiomes are continually interacting”.  

The oceans absorb carbon dioxide produced through human activities, provide food and other essential ecosystem services. Microbiomes are important mediators of these processes and, through their ability to break down complex molecules, cycle important elements such as carbon and nitrogen throughout the oceans. “However, we lack a clear understanding of the ways in which climate change may alter the ability of microbiomes to provide these services. For instance, we lack a clear understanding regarding the effects of climate change and increased incidents of oil and plastic pollution on marine environments,” said Prof Makhalanyane.

A possible consequence of these changes may be increased incidents of harmful algal blooms, which pose a direct risk to communities living on the coast and marine life. “By providing important insights regarding the structure and function of microbiomes in the South Atlantic, AtlantECO will provide a baseline allowing us to improve our predictions on the impacts of climate change,” he explained.

“We can think of the Southern Ocean as the proverbial engine room for key parts of the world’s climate. Surprisingly, there are many gaps in our knowledge of such an important part of the earth system, and the AtlantECO project will make a meaningful contribution to plug some of these gaps, specifically for the South Atlantic” said Professor Barend Erasmus, Dean of the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at UP. “UP’s part of the work is really novel, by looking at global level consequences of microbiome dynamics. The consortium of researchers realised that big problems need big teams with big ambitions, and they managed to source the funding to get it done.”

This initiative aims to develop and apply new technologies to understand microbial communities and their ecosystem services in the Atlantic Ocean. Key technological innovations include the development of high-resolution imaging to better visualize marine microbiomes. The project also aims to develop genetic sensors and tests which may be used in aquaculture facilities to monitor hazards, predict and mitigate risks. “Together, the results from this project will provide new insights regarding the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems,” said Prof Makhalanyane.

Dr Stephan Pesant, Co-Principal Investigator of AtlantECO said “It is our hope that this project will provide substantial improvements in our understanding, and serve as a means for connecting the African, South American and European researchers.” He added “We hope to communicate our scientific outputs to the public, in hopes of improving ocean literacy and advocacy for the South Atlantic.”

AtlantECO is part of a series of projects funded as part of the Belem agreement signed by South Africa, Brazil and the EU. The Belem agreement aims to promote and facilitate human capital development and scientific exchange and encourages cooperation in several research areas. These areas research on climate variability, food security, understanding the effects of pollutants and polar research on the Atlantic and Southern Ocean.

The project will run over 48 months.

- Author Primarashni Gower

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