Marine shipping is a major contributor to the spread of marine organisms, allowing plants and animals to travel vast distances, which would otherwise be impossible. Though small microscopic organisms (aka microbes) are much more abundant in the marine environment and likely also spread through marine shipping, these organisms are much less conspicuous and have not been well-studied in invasion biology. Nevertheless, there are multiple examples of the devastating impacts that toxic and parasitic microbes can have when they are introduced and infect novel hosts in new geographic areas, including MSX disease in the Chesapeake Bay and crayfish plague in Europe.
Our research on parasite invasions involves understanding the role of humans in spreading marine parasites, assessing the characteristics that make parasites successful invaders, and examining the underlying mechanisms that allow for successful parasite invasions. We are examining the protistan communities, including parasites and toxic taxa, associated with ballast water of commercial ships entering ports across the US to assess the extent to which marine ships are dispersing these organisms, changing their global distributions and allowing for potential invasions. We are also assessing the microbes, including parasites, associated with the biofilms on the hulls of these ships. Additionally, we are testing the effectiveness of different treatment technologies in removing microbial taxa from ballast water. Due to the difficulty in finding and identifying these small organisms based on morphology*, we are using genetics, specifically metabarcoding*, to identify microbes in these samples. Finally, we are beginning to examine the characteristics and mechanisms that allow for successful parasite invasions using laboratory experiments to understand how parasites associated with ships can move from ships to hosts in the surrounding environment.
What Parasites are Hitching a Ride to the Chesapeake Bay in Ballast Water? By Katrina Lohan. February 3, 2014
Dr. Katrina Lohan