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Using microbes to estimate the health of estuaries

A circular metal sampling machine attached to the side of a boat.
Sampling from estuarine environments.

Up to 60 per cent of the world’s population lives along the coast. Estuaries are the interface between the land and oceans and provide a range of goods and services that are economically and ecologically indispensable. The land-ocean interface act as a natural filter for runoff, and provides vital nursery grounds and habitats for species that are valued commercially, recreationally, and culturally.

Identifying reliable and inexpensive methods to track the health of estuaries and to predict the effects of specific stressors or management is a major challenge. Microbes are seen as useful indicators of ecosystem health because of their high abundance, the diversity of nutrient cycling functions they perform, and because their short life-cycle makes them able to respond quickly to environmental change.

Three glass beakers with yellow fluid inside and blue labels.
Experiments with estuarine microbes in the laboratory.

In this project we are using metagenomic sequencing combined with experiments in the laboratory and in the field to unlock the relationships between microbial identity (i.e., who is there) and the ecosystem functions they perform (i.e., what are they doing). By establishing the link between identity and function, we aim to provide a new rapid, but accurate way to reveal environmental conditions in estuaries.
We will also use this information to build mathematical models that accurately reflect microbial processes and thereby provide better predictions about future environmental health in Australia’s estuaries.

Project Lead: Dr Eric Raes (Environomics FSP Postdoctoral Fellow)

This project forms a component of the Microbes and healthy waterways project led by Andrew Bissett.