Page 1

ISSUE 7 SPRING 2019

RSRC NEWSLETTER

© 2018 Morgan Bennett-Smith


CONTENTS Message from the director Growth and death in bacterial communities mangrove forests trap floating litter FaCULTY FOCUS: pROF. Xosé Anxelu G. Morán Speargrass recruits sandy microbes for help KAUST RESEARCH WORKSHOP: A new monitoring era using environmental dna kaust research WORKSHOP: Securing a future for red sea ecosystems Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea exhibition aims to protect region’s vital marine environment


© 2018 Unsplash


MESSAGE FROM THE DIRECTOR Prof. MICHAEL BERUMEN

Dear all, Another semester has flown by, and another issue of the newsletter is upon us. In the past few months, the Center has been a busy place. We hosted several workshops and numerous visitors, including a workshop and a conference that are featured in pages 11 and 12. Our faculty feature in this issue shares the story of Prof. Xelu Morán and talks of his early childhood inspiration to observe and study nature. He also talks about how he continues to explore the natural world. We are fortunate to have him and his team as part of the core of Center researchers. This semester has also seen major developments with regards to the Center faculty. After nearly 10 years at KAUST, we bid farewell to Prof. Christian Voolstra, one of the original founding faculty members of KAUST. I was lucky to meet Chris in April 2009 when we were both visiting the construction site that would become the university. Chris went on to launch a stellar career and built one of KAUST’s most successful teams, lifting the profile of the Center and the university along the way. He and his family have moved to the University of Konstanz, in his home country, Germany. However, Chris will not be a stranger to us, as he now has an adjunct faculty role at KAUST. In other faculty news, we are very excited to announce that Prof. Francesca Benzoni from the University of Milano-Bicocca has accepted an offer to join the faculty in the Red Sea Research Center. We hope that she will be able to start before the end of 2019. Prof. Benzoni brings a wealth of experience with regards to coral reef fauna. She is arguably the definitive authority for coral biodiversity in the Arabian region. We are very much looking forward to her joining the Center and continuing our search for additional faculty to continue building KAUST’s reputation in the field of marine science.

3 | Message from the Director

Finally, we are also proud to share that Prof. Manuel Aranda has been promoted to the rank of Associate Professor of Marine Science. This is a well-deserved recognition of Prof. Aranda’s outstanding achievements in all aspects of research, teaching, and service. Prof. Aranda has been at KAUST from nearly the very beginning, starting initially as a postdoc in the RSRC. This summer, we will welcome participants to the 5th Marine Science Summer Program at KAUST. If any of you are here at the end of July and in early August, this is a great chance to meet some very talented prospective students and to share some of your passion for learning about the Red Sea. Every year, the summer program participants comment that getting to know the Center members is the highlight of their visit. Along with Prof. Aranda and many others, this is an opportune time to stop and reflect on the somewhat amazing fact that KAUST is about to hit the date of its 10th anniversary. Perhaps all that we can say for sure is that it has never been boring and it will certainly continue to be an exciting adventure. The hard work and accomplishments of the members of the Center will undoubtedly keep the RSRC and KAUST on its exciting trajectory. The summer offers a chance to catch our breath and prepare to start another academic year feeling refreshed. For those traveling, safe journeys, and we will look forward to kicking off another semester with you soon! Best regards Mike


Š 2018 Anastasia Khrenova

Message from the Director | 4


GROWTH AND DEATH IN BACTERIAL COMMUNITIES Predation, not resource availability, limits the abundance of coastal Red Sea bacteria. The coastal waters of the Red Sea have enough resources to support bacterial growth, but predation by protistan grazers limits the population, according to new research from KAUST. Since bacteria are vital players in the marine food web, determining the factors that affect their growth and abundance is critical to understanding marine ecosystems and how they will respond to climate change. Researchers at KAUST’s Red Sea Research Center measured the abundance and growth rates of heterotrophic bacteria in water samples collected from the Red Sea coast over 16 months. They also recorded a range of environmental parameters in order to assess their effect on bacterial growth dynamics. Back in the lab, the researchers incubated seawater with and without protistan predators, single-celled organisms that were removed by filtration. By combining all of these data, they could determine the importance of top-down vs. bottom-up factors on the community—that is, whether mortality or resources have a greater impact on bacterial stocks and dynamics. The analysis uncovered seasonal patterns, with fewer bacteria and lower growth rates in the spring and increases in abundance and growth in the summer and fall. However, growth correlated poorly with temperature, suggesting that other factors were behind the changes in growth. Bacteria with high levels of nucleic acid content made up the bulk of the community, indicating a dearth of the types of bacteria that are adapted to nutrient-limiting conditions, typical in environments like the Red Sea. Together with an analysis of the components of dissolved nutrients and organic material that were consumed by the growing bacteria, this led to the conclusion that the availability of certain resources and, more importantly, their quality are likely to limit bacterial growth. “The main surprise was the high apparent adaptation of Red Sea bacteria to the warm temperatures observed year round,” says Luis Silva, the study’s lead author.

5 | Research Highlights

Luis Silva, Ph.D. Student Luis is earning his Ph.D. in Assoc. Professor Xelu Morán’s group by working on microbial oceanography and ecology, including the specific role of planktonic microbes in pelagic food webs and biogeochemical cycling. © 2016 Anastasia Khrenova

“We found high bacterial activity, with growth rates higher than those found in other, higher latitude systems, where nutrient availability is much greater than in the Red Sea.” The team observed consistently higher abundance and growth rates in the filtered samples. They concluded that this indicates that predation is a major constraint on coastal Red Sea bacteria standing stocks, sometimes even halving the community’s carrying capacity. Grazing by predators may also explain the low levels of abundance in these Red Sea samples compared with other tropical or subtropical sites. Understanding the bacterial communities of the Red Sea’s warm waters may provide a glimpse of what the future holds for marine life on a warming Earth. Read this story and more on KAUST Discovery here.

Luis Silva (front) and his supervisor, Xosé Anxelu G. Morán, analyze samples to determine their bacterial content. © 2019 KAUST


MANGROVE FORESTS TRAP FLOATING LITTER Marine plastic pollution accumulates in mangrove forests and is a danger to sea life. Mangrove forests on the coasts of Saudi Arabia act as litter traps, accumulating plastic debris from the marine environment, according to new research from KAUST. The study offers an explanation for the fate of missing marine plastic litter and highlights the threat it poses to coastal ecosystems. “Of all the plastic discarded in the marine environment globally, only 1 percent is found floating in surface waters. That means that 99 percent of the plastic is elsewhere, but yet we don’t know where exactly,” says Cecilia Martin of KAUST’s Red Sea Research Center. In previous work, Martin and others in Carlos Duarte’s research group, found relatively low levels of plastic litter in the Red Sea. Next, to identify the location of this missing litter, the team used an unmanned aerial vehicle to scour the beaches. Now, together with Hanan Almahasheer, Martin has surveyed litter in mangrove forests along the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf. They recorded the type and location of the litter, as well the weight of some items and various features of the sites, such as the distance to the nearest coastal city and to intense marine traffic, the density of the trees, and how far the litter was from the shore or the sea. They found one litter item every square meter or two, with greater density along the Arabian Gulf than the Red Sea. Plastic made up more than 90 percent of the litter: the most common were small items such as bottles, bags, lengths of rope and food wrappings. High density groves had more litter, and the aerial roots acted like a sieve, capturing large plastic debris from the water and causing mangroves to accumulate more plastic than bare beaches. The team’s analysis showed that the density of debris depends on the distance to major maritime traffic routes rather than land-based factors, such as the distance to the nearest city. Traffic further from the coast caused less litter accumulation, but only up to a certain distance. Unexpectedly, litter density began to increase again once the traffic was more than 15km away, which the researchers propose is due to currents transporting the litter to mangroves.

Cecilia Martin, Ph.D. Student Under the supervision of Prof. Carlos Duarte, Cecilia is pursuing her degree by assessing the fate of plastic pollution in the Red Sea. She focuses on microplastic abundance and interactions with ecosystems and biota. © 2016 Anastasia Khrenova

As well as harming the mangroves, debris could be ingested by other marine organisms that use the forests as a nursery. Chemicals associated with the debris, such as industrial additives or pollutants absorbed by the plastic, could also damage these ecosystems. The team is now checking whether microplastics are building up in mangrove sediment, which could be a major sink for plastic marine pollution and explain the fate of some of the plastic that is not accounted for. These findings reinforce the need to reduce plastic consumption and properly deal with plastic waste in order to preserve these important ecosystems. Read this story and more on KAUST Discovery here.

More than 90 percent of the litter found in the survey was identified as plastic: the most common types of litter included bottles, bags, lengths of rope and food wrappings. © 2019 KAUST

Research Highlights | 6


© 2018 Anastasia Khrenova

FACULTY FOCUS Prof. Xosé Anxelu G. Morán

- By David Murphy

Professor Xosé Anxelu G. Morán’s microbial oceanography and ecology research is focused on small-sized planktonic organisms (viruses, prokaryotes, phytoplankton) and their role in biogeochemical cycles. Before joining KAUST and the Red Sea Research Center (RSRC), Morán had a long and distinguished research career in his native Spain. After completing his Ph.D. and a one year postdoc contract at the Institut de Ciències del Mar (CSIC) in Barcelona, he then went on to work as a researcher for 14 years at the Instituto Español de Oceanografía in Gijón/Xixón. His research interests at KAUST include the study of the dynamics and metabolic ecology aspects of planktonic prokaryotes (bacteria and archaea), their interactions with dissolved organic matter, and microbial plankton responses to global warming. Having worked in several oceanographic research expeditions throughout his career in Spain, including extremely cold environments, Morán saw that by joining KAUST he could continue his branch of research in a relatively unexplored part of the world. The move to Saudi Arabia would give him the opportunity to work in a unique and ecologically highly relevant, tropical marine environment. “In Spain, I was working mostly on the interactions between phytoplankton and bacterioplankton, that is, between phototrophic and heterotrophic microbes, in the water column of temperate latitude sites. I was happy there, but then there was an advertised position open here at KAUST. It was advertised as exploring the ecology of plankton living in extreme environments.”

7 | Faculty Focus

“I saw KAUST as an opportunity to get to go to a place and be able to work in a unique environment by the Red Sea. The amount of effort and the multidisciplinarity that we are achieving here at KAUST is unthinkable of in other places. The services that KAUST provide to their researchers, the possibility of doing so many things here without having to outsource your analysis somewhere else is unique,” he said. Morán has a passion for biology that stems from his youth growing up in Asturias, a coastal and mountainous region of Northern Spain. Summers spent birdwatching and catching small reptiles, fishes and insects to observe fueled a burgeoning passion for biology, and its preservation, that has remained with Morán up until today. “One of the research lines that I have been more focused over the recent years is the effect of global warming in pelagic ecosystems. Many RSRC and KAUST PIs are working on global change research because of the general concern surrounding the topic. I try to contribute to determining which direction of change we can expect for microbial communities in the future global ocean.


© 2019 Anastasia Khrenova

Prof. Morán’s group (left to right): Najwa Al-Otaibi (PhD student), Dr. Maria Calleja (former Research Scientist), Abbrar Labban (PhD student), Luis Silva (PhD student), Prof. Xosé Anxelu G. Morán, Emman Sabbagh (PhD student), Dr. Hana Sonbol (Postdoc), Dr. Tamara Huete-Stauffer (Postdoc), Dr. Ghaida Hadaidi (Postdoc) and Miguel Viegas (Lab Technician)

The assessments and the experiments we can do here in the Red Sea can be useful for predicting the responses of organisms to global warming in other parts of their world,” he noted. Morán acknowledges that his research findings, or the scientific contributions that may develop from his research, may not have an obvious application for the Saudi economy or any other economy in the world.

“I don’t think we should forget that the freedom to do research and basic science should be warranted in the world. This is my personal opinion. With nonapplied science, there should be no pressure to potential economic obligations. As researchers, we’re contributing to the world’s knowledge base. I also find it very interesting to be able to speak, to teach, and to show KAUST students (a unique blend from all over the world) your research, and how you approach science. A lot of positive outcomes derive from sharing knowledge,” Morán emphasized.

“My type of research in marine pelagic ecosystems doesn’t bring an immediate application of technologies that can be used or to have an economic impact. We should not forget that basic science is also essential. Many of the applications that have been produced through human history have come about from purely curiosity-driven questions,” he said.

Faculty Focus | 8


© 2019 KAUST

SPEARGRASS RECRUITS SANDY MICROBES FOR HELP In the harsh sand of the Namib Desert, the sheaths of speargrass roots co-opt any growth-promoting bacteria they can find. Sticky, sandy sheaths surrounding the roots of three speargrass species growing in the Namib Desert recruit whatever growth-promoting bacteria are available in the surrounding sand. This is contrary to the more specialized root sheaths of plants growing in resource-rich soils, where different plant species recruit different types of bacteria.

Prof. Daniele Daffonchio (left), Dr. Ramona Marasco (center) and Sadaf Umer (right) examine the structure of the rhizosheath-root system typical of desert speargrass.

© 2018 Ramona Marasco

The rhizosheath-root system was sampled using sterile scissors and tweezers and placed in 50-ml sterile tubes. Bulk sand samples were also collected.

The research led by KAUST has implications for predicting how well plants with root sheaths, including some food crops, will adapt to changing environmental conditions and stress. © 2018 Ramona Marasco

A rhizosheath is the portion of soil that sticks to and encases certain plants’ entire root systems. 9 | Research Highlights


© 2019 KAUST

The rhizosheath is an adaptive feature developed by some plant species that strengthens the contact between plant roots and the surrounding soil to improve nutrient and water uptake. Root hairs, fungal filaments and a sticky material formed by roots and microorganisms cause sand or soil granules to aggregate and form a sheath of soil encasing the entire root system. Desert speargrass species are among the types of plants to develop this adaptive trait and, until now, few studies have been conducted on this species’ rhizosheath-root system. In resource-rich soils, where plants have abundant choice, different species are known to recruit specific types of bacteria to their roots. These growth-promoting bacteria facilitate the availability of nutrients, such as nitrogen, iron, and phosphorous, to the plants, and they can also confer disease resistance. KAUST bioscientist Daniele Daffonchio, and colleagues, predicted that a plant’s species would have a minimal impact on bacterial recruitment in the resource-poor sands of the Namib Desert and that different desert speargrass species would randomly recruit whatever bacteria available in the surrounding sands.

Dr. Ramona Marasco views the rhizosheath of speargrass through a stereomicroscope (Leica DFC295).

The team analyzed the microbial content of the soil and the roots of three different species of desert speargrass growing on the top, middle and bottom of a single dune in the Namib Desert. “It was important for us to analyze the plants growing in a restricted area to nullify the variability determined by the type of soil and the climate,” explains study co-author, Maria Mosqueira. The team found that the rhizosheaths of all three species acted as a hot spot for relatively similar growth-promoting bacteria and fungi. Their finding indicates that the types of microbes present in the rhizosheath-root systems of the three kinds of speargrass were not driven by plant species, but rather by microbial availability in the surrounding sand. “We are now trying to define which microbes are commonly associated with the rhizosheath and to understand their roles in favoring the fitness of their hosts,” says the study’s first author, Ramona Marasco. “The selection and isolation of such microorganisms can be a step toward evaluating their protective capacity on agricultural crops, such as wheat or barley,” she says. Read this story and more on KAUST Discovery here.

Research Highlights | 10


© 2019 Andrea Bachofen-Echt

A NEW MONITORING ERA USING ENVIRONMENTAL DNA

“A new monitoring era using environmental DNA” workshop participants

April 8 - 11, 2019 - By Dr. Eva Aylagas

The KAUST workshop on “A new monitoring era using environmental DNA” was co-organized by Dr. Eva Aylagas and Dr. Susana Carvalho from the Red Sea Research Center. The workshop was held in a moment where the intensive industrial and coastal development ongoing in Saudi Arabia is raising awareness to the potential effects on Red Sea marine biodiversity. Motivated by the need of innovative monitoring tools that enable a fast evaluation of marine community changes, scientists from KAUST and abroad gathered during a four-day workshop to discuss important questions about how recent advances in molecular-based methodologies can support adaptive environmental management through timely communication with stakeholders.

The invited speakers came from New Zealand (Dr. Xavier Pochon and Dr. Anastasija Zaiko), Norway (Dr. Nigel Keeley), Spain (Dr. Angel Borja), UK (Dr. Kat Bruce) and USA (Dr. Greg Ruiz) and are wellknown scientists in the application of molecular tools into environmental management strategies. The internal participants from KAUST were Prof. Peiying Hong, Prof. Daniele Daffonchio, Dr. Laura Gajdzik, Alejandra Ortega, Dr. Nathan Geraldi and Dr. Darren Coker. Local representative stakeholders were also actively involved in the discussions; specifically, representatives of the General Authority of Meteorology and Environmental Protection (GAMEP: Dr. Ahmed Al-Ansari, Dr. Ammar Saleem and Sultan Alamer) and Saudi Aramco (Dr. Yasser Kattan and Dr. Tyas Hikmawan).

Between April 8 and 11, three closed sessions with invited scientists, KAUST scientists, and local stakeholders were organized to discuss the state of the art in the use of molecular-based tools for ecosystem environmental assessments. The KAUST community was invited to attend the Research Conference, held on April 9.

The active discussions occurring during the closed sessions and the open day will help to produce a roadmap where gaps in the use of molecular-based tools for marine monitoring will be identified and recommendations will be provided to managers, scientists and stakeholders for a reliable use of DNAbased marine assessments.

11 | Recent Workshops


© 2019 Khulud Muath

SECURING A FUTURE FOR RED SEA ECOSYSTEMS March 11 - 14, 2019 - By Prof. Manuel Aranda

Coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs, mangrove forests and seagrass meadows are hotspots of biodiversity and provide services with an estimated global value of >9.9 USD trillion per year. Many countries in tropical regions, including countries bordering the Red Sea, depend heavily on these ecosystems for shoreline protection, fishing grounds and as an important source of revenue from ecotourism. In fact, the Vision 2030 program to transform the economy and society of Saudi Arabia has now brought the Red Sea to the forefront of development strategies, which recognize pristine coastal ecosystems in the Red Sea as globallyrelevant assets. Whereas this could be seen as a threat to vulnerable ecosystems, we believe this is also a huge opportunity to develop innovative approaches to development that enhance, rather than impact, these ecosystems. Yet global pressures, such as climate change, pose risks and require that cutting edge science and technology be employed to ensure a future for Red Sea ecosystems.

“Securing a future for Red Sea ecosystems” workshop participants

The KAUST Research Conference: “Securing a Future for Red Sea Ecosystems” brought together experts from academia, industry and government to discuss the current state of research and to develop feasible strategies to improve current mitigation and restoration methods. This event aimed to produce a set of targeted strategies that are sustainable, socioeconomically acceptable and aligned with public, academic, industry, and government interests. The two-day research conference took place on March 11 - 12 and was open to all. Invited staff, students and visitors took part in a workshop on March 13 and 14. An accompanying poster session held on March 11 where RSRC students and postdocs showcased their research.

Organizing Committee Prof. Manuel Aranda Prof. Carlos Duarte Prof. Christian Voolstra Prof. Daniele Daffonchio Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Suwailem Recent Workshops | 12


© 2019 KAUST

SAUDI ARABIA’S RED SEA EXHIBITION AIMS TO PROTECT REGION’S VITAL MARINE ENVIRONMENT - Arab News

JEDDAH: Visitors were plunged into the fascinating underwater world of the Red Sea at an awareness exhibition aimed at helping to protect the unique marine environment.

“It has a big impact to see a model of a whale shark, and it has a big impact to see creatures in the tank, but it is another level when you actually get to hold it,” said Berumen.

The Red Sea Research Center, based at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), has been staging an interactive display at the Red Sea Mall in Jeddah to highlight the importance of the marine ecosystem to the entire region.

“And if you watch, it is actually the kids who are most excited about the exhibit.”

The exhibition, which runs until June 24 and is part of the 41-day Jeddah Season summer festival, is designed to raise awareness of Red Sea conservation projects. KAUST scientists and researchers were on hand to guide adults and children through the exhibition and introduce them to the Red Sea’s vast array of wildlife.

Berumen added that by targeting children, the center aimed to get them passionate about nature and hopefully spawn the marine biologists of the future. “We really want to be sure that the people here understand how special the Red Sea is, and the unique resources we have right in our backyard.”

Children had the chance to feel and hold sea creatures in special tanks and were asked to sign a pledge to contribute to the preservation of the Red Sea by helping prevent pollution of the marine environment. Michael Berumen, director of the Red Sea Research Center, told Arab News of its mission to educate not only KAUST students, but also the public. “The Red Sea is a resource that needs to be protected, appreciated, and celebrated by everybody living by the coast.

13 | Recent Events

© 2019 KAUST KAUST scientists and researchers introduce adults and children to the sea’s vast array of wildlife. (left to right): Prof. Burt Jones, Prof. Michael Berumen, exhibition guest, Mr. Mark Mulqueen and Mr. Amr Gusti


Pollution threats Sea pollution is mainly caused by coastal farming, rivers, sewage, and litter.

© 2019 KAUST

Whale shark A life-size model of a whale shark, situated at the entrance to the exhibition, represented one of the most important creatures living in the Red Sea, said Berumen. “There are very few places in the world where you can study whale sharks, but the Red Sea is one of them.” Burton Jones, a professor of marine science and a member of the Red Sea Research Center, said that as researchers they were trying to work out how the Red Sea worked while helping people to “understand that the Red Sea is extremely important for everybody’s life here.”

Fertilizers used in farming often get washed into the sea by rain, and although this is not a serious problem in the Red Sea, sewage and littering are major pollution threats, Berumen said. The Red Sea Research Center has previously run several public events in Riyadh and Jeddah, but its latest exhibition is the biggest to date. It has been a key department since the opening of KAUST in 2009 and is well-positioned and superbly equipped to study the Red Sea with its state-of-theart facilities and world-class researchers. The center also works closely with many government agencies to maintain the health of the Red Sea’s marine environment. © 2019 KAUST

He added: “The Red Sea is what makes life better in Jeddah. It helps to keep the climate cooler, and oceans are very important to the climate of an area.” Lina Eyouni, a Ph.D. student at KAUST, said the exhibition aimed to create a relationship between the visitors and the creatures of the sea. “We want to keep people engaged in what we are doing and spread knowledge about the importance of the environment and how can we protect it.”

Read this story and more on Arab News here.

Recent Events | 14


Contact Us rsrc.info@kaust.edu.sa seda.gasparyan@kaust.edu.sa www.rsrc.kaust.edu.sa Red Sea Research Center (RSRC) King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) Ibn Al-Haytham (building 2) Thuwal 23955-6900 Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Follow Us on Social Media @RSRC.KAUST @RSRC_KAUST @rsrc_kaust

Profile for Red Sea Research Center

RSRC Newsletter, Issue 7, Spring 2019  

RSRC Newsletter, Issue 7, Spring 2019  

Advertisement