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How Will Climate Change Effect Harmful Marine Bacteria Brought on by Saharan Dust?

A population explosion of the flesh-eating bacteria, Vibrio, may just be one of the many realities the Gulf Coast will face in the future.

Every summer big dust plumes leave the Saharan and Sahel deserts in Africa and travel across the Atlantic. The dust eventually gets deposited in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf—including coastal Texas.

Dust plume off the Sahara desert over the northeast Atlantic Ocean. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Michael Wetz, Assistant Professor of Marine Biology at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, has secured a $220,758 grant that will allow him to provide insight into the effects of global climate change on growth of marine bacteria such as Vibrio. The grant, funded by the National Science Foundation, will provide the first look on how marine bacteria respond to the long term effects of Saharan Dust.

Vibrio is common in bodies of water, including Corpus Christi Bay, and lives off energy from its environment. This is where Saharan dust comes in. Bacteria, like Vibrio, absorb nutrients from the dust that falls in the ocean and use these nutrients to survive and multiply. More dust in our atmosphere means more dust in our oceans and could trigger a population explosion of Vibrio.

“Climate models suggest that the Saharan and Sahel regions of Africa are likely to become drier over the coming century due to climate change,” said Wetz. “These factors suggest that there will likely be more of this dust going into the atmosphere and oceans, potentially leading to more outbreaks of organisms such as Vibrio.”

Wetz said other studies suggest that this dust affects growth of not only vibrio, but also microbes that cause coral disease in the Caribbean, as well as growth of the red tide organism in the Gulf of Mexico.

Wetz will focus on Vibrio’s response to Saharan dust and identify the key components of the dust that causes bacterial outbreaks in the environment.

“One of my big research interests is understanding how climate and human-driven environmental change affects coastal water quality,” said Wetz. “This study has direct linkages to climate change, and the response of these organisms will have significant implications for the health of our marine ecosystems.”

The project is set to take place in the Florida Keys and Wetz will collaborate with Dr. Erin Lipp from the University of Georgia, who is the Primary Investigator on the project. Other collaborators include Dr. Bill Landing from Florida State University, Dr. Liz Ottesen from the University of Georgia, Dr. Dale Griffin from USGS, and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Professor of Mathematics Dr. Blair Sterba-Boatwright.

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