Pollution’s Effects On Bay’s Food Chain To Be Studied

Researched Funded By $100,000 Federal Grant

POSTED: 7:22 pm EDT July 19, 2010

BALTIMORE — The bottom of the Chesapeake Bay food chain is the focus of a new federally funded study.

On Monday, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger issued a $100,000 check to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science to help researchers learn how the bacteria are affected by pollution.

The federal funding kicks off a critical, unprecedented study of the bay in which new technology will allow scientists to sample the DNA of life in the bay and clone species you can only see under a microscope — all in an effort to diagnose how the environment has changed the food chain.

The research could affect how we live, work and play in and around the bay for generations, environmental officials said. Scientists will be studying the genetic makeup of algae, bacteria and other microorganisms at the bottom of the food chain.

“It’s like, you go to get a physical, and to be treated properly and to make sure you are healthy, you need to have a blood sample taken. That blood sample with then tell you what it wrong, and it is the same thing with the Chesapeake Bay,” said Ruppersberger, D-2nd District.

The study will apply to the science of metagenomics, which is the study of genetic material recovered directly from the environment, scientists said. The technique is to clone the DNA of microorganisms in large fragments.

Experts said it is expected to improve strategies for monitoring the effects of pollution on ecosystems and to better understand how these communities cope with pollutants.

“We know that microalgae form the basis of the marine food chains, and therefore, they could affect the stabilities of the entire ecosystems, such as fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay. Microalgae is also sensitive to environmental change, such as the increase in nutrients and water temperatures,” said UMCES scientist Dr. Feng Chen.

Bay observers said they are pleased that science is currently driving cleanup efforts. Scientists have been looking at life cycles of blue crabs and oysters for decades but said that the technology only recently has been developed to probe the processes that affect fish, water quality and harmful algae blooms.

Scientists said they believe the new study could also lead to a revolutionary but natural way to clean up oil spills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico.

“With tools that will be refined here in the Chesapeake Bay, we can apply them to see how bacteria is responding to oil and whether they are capable of degrading oil,” Ruppersberger said.

The research project will last one year, but experts said they are confident that promising results will lead to more funding.