Improving Ocean Health at Clemson University

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Ocean health is a growing concern — and for good reason.

The ocean covers over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and produces more than half the world’s oxygen. It is home to more than 238,000 identified marine species and potentially hundreds of thousands yet undiscovered.

At Clemson University, research, teaching and outreach efforts are playing a critical role in understanding and communicating the importance of healthy oceans.

Viruses play crucial role

Microbiologist Barbara Campbell’s collaborative research revealed the significance of bacteriophages — viruses infecting bacteria — and the crucial role they play in creating a healthy marine ecosystem, something scientists are just now beginning to understand.

Phages are known for their ability to modulate host cells, take over cellular metabolic processes and proliferate through a bacterial population. As many as 40 percent of bacteria are infected at any one time.

“Viral infection of bacteria in certain environments is crucial to the ecosystem,” said Campbell, an associate professor in the College of Science’s Department of Biological Sciences. “If there’s a limited amount of nutrients available and some bacteria are lysed, those nutrients are released and taken up by other bacteria. It creates a viral-mediated microbial loop, a cycle where nutrients are being recycled between viruses, bacteria and other microbes.”

One mechanism phages use to alter the metabolic state of their host is through auxiliary metabolic genes. Sulfur is an essential nutrient to all forms of life, including bacteria. In normal marine ecosystems, the bacterial proteins transform sulfate to sulfide or vice versa and produce energy. When a virus has copies of that gene, it will make additional energy when it replicates.

“The virus will replicate faster and lyse the bacteria faster,” Campbell said. “It completes the loop faster.”

Campbell and her collaborators discovered auxiliary metabolic genes associated with sulfur cycling in many viruses that infect bacterial host cells. They identified 191 phages in 12 environments that encoded auxiliary metabolic genes for the oxidation of sulfur and thiosulfate.

“Until now, we didn’t know why these phages picked up these extra genes. We didn’t know the purpose of the genes,” Campbell said. “Now we know they create more energy in the ocean ecosystem.”

The findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, could shift scientists’ views of the importance of viruses in aquatic ecosystems. The article is titled “Ecology of inorganic sulfur auxiliary metabolism in widespread bacteriophages.”

“If you have too many bacteria or viruses, the balance of the ecosystem is off. For instance, if too many algae lyse at once, oxygen-depleted dead zones can be created,” Campbell said. “So, if some viruses have the ability to make extra energy in these dead zones, they would help recycle the nutrients faster to create a healthy ecosystem. And a healthy ecosystem is important to all of us.”

Filling the gap

Despite the importance of oceans, many K-12 students are not taught about climate change or marine conservation.

Clemson offers undergraduate experiential learning opportunities related to ocean health through its Creative Inquiry program to fill the gap.

The Conservation of Marine Resources team focuses on marine and behavioral ecology field research exploring the impacts of climate change on aquatic invertebrates and reef fishes. The Something Very Fishy creative inquiry team is a marine science educational outreach team focused on teaching climate and ocean literacy principles to elementary students in kindergarten through fifth grade. It involves hosting a Broadway-style musical theater performance followed by marine science-related exhibits.

In an article published in Integrative and Comparative Biology, Clemson biological sciences graduate student Randi Sims examined how the programs affected undergraduates’ attitudes toward marine science. The article is titled “University experiences of marine science research and outreach beyond the classroom.”

Sims found experiential learning can increase student engagement and understanding of climate change and ocean literacy communication and create a sense of belonging in science-oriented fields.

That understanding and sense of belonging increased the longer they were involved in the program.

“With many of our students, the longer they are involved in our programs, the more opportunities open up for them. For instance, those who stay involved in our research group for multiple semesters can participate in field research and conduct their independent projects. In our outreach group, these students become team leaders and are involved in the design and development of our program,” Sims said. “I believe these opportunities lend to greater investments in our programs and a deeper understanding of why we are striving to combat issues related to climate change threat.”

Deeper understanding

Researchers found students from kindergarten to fifth grade who attended “Something Very Fishy” showed improvement in understanding two ocean literacy principles: the oceans support a diversity of life and ecosystems, and that oceans and humans are connected in their actions and consequences.

“The older students really recognized that humans bore responsibility for the negative issues impacting our oceans,” said Michael Childress, an associate professor in the College of Science’s Department of Biological Sciences.

But “Something Very Fishy” did not affect students’ actions toward conservation. Researchers believe that’s because they were already doing or intending to do conservation-related activities before attending the performance, said Meghnaa Tallapragada, a former assistant professor in Clemson’s Department of Communication who now works at Temple University.

During 2019 and 2020, 60 classes from 13 elementary schools in Anderson, Oconee and Pickens counties attended the in-person theatrical production. In addition, teachers are provided class resources.

Of the 27 teachers who accompanied their students to “Something Very Fishy,” six reported teaching climate change. Eight taught ocean conservation. Sixteen taught neither climate change nor ocean conservation. More planned to teach climate change and ocean conservation in the future.

The journal Environmental Communication published the findings in an article titled “Something Very Fishy: An informal STEAM project making a case for ocean conservation and climate change.”

“Something Very Fishy” shows discussion of the politically polarizing issue of climate change can occur without threatening anyone’s political identity, said Tallapragada, lead author of the paper. “We were able to talk about the real issue in a way that seems to motivate people to do more to help rather than to send them into their political silos.”

Childress added, “Children are ready to learn about and consider how to help with major issues facing the planet if teachers can become comfortable discussing them.”

Prepared by Clemson UniversityCollege of Science.