Seeing microorganisms and cellular structures brought about a new era of scientific discovery, from understanding infectious agents to recognizing sub-cellular structures in living tissues. Microscopy allows us to observe the smallest parts of our natural world invisible to the human eye. Different types of microscopes and other analyzing tools have allowed ecologists and environmental scientists to assess the health of wetlands in coastal Louisiana. From geologists to botanists, sedimentologists to ecologists, microorganisms are a vital ally in the fight against wetland loss in coastal Louisiana.
Microorganisms like phytoplankton (microscopic plants) can be great indicators of aquatic and wetland habitat health because they are easily affected by changes and easy to observe under a microscope. Studies across the Gulf Coast sample phytoplankton and zooplankton (microscopic animals) to keep tabs on large-scale changes in water quality. For example, algal blooms, which are huge growths of phytoplankton, often lead to the death of important fisheries species. These blooms also indicate poor water quality and contribute to the worsening of hypoxia.
Soil microbes can give information on marsh platform health. In response to stressful situations, these microbes can change their cell walls’ chemical makeup to reduce physiological damage. By identifying both the stressed and non-stressed types of molecules, soils can be assessed quickly. Healthy soils are important in keeping nutrients cycling, which is crucial in keeping wetland plants alive and growing. Without a stable microbiome supporting plant growth, marsh platforms degrade and can no longer sustain life or provide any ecosystem services.
Microscopic organisms also play a huge role in coastal Louisiana’s wetlands because they are crucial in regulating marsh platforms, feeding our fisheries, and producing a huge portion of atmospheric oxygen for all terrestrial life on the planet. Coastal scientists study these tiny indicator species to quantify the health of wetland ecosystems. For example, fisheries rely on trophic interactions (food web/food chain) that include phytoplankton as the primary producers. Since seafood is such a profitable industry in Louisiana, we have a great appreciation for microbes. Louisiana’s crucial shrimp harvest and signature oysters rely directly on plankton, and larger sport fish rely on eating other things that eat plankton.
Although tiny, microorganisms play an important role in Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. As complex a system as our coast is, it’s easy to see direct impacts that a weak microbial community may have on certain pieces of the full ecosystem. We urge our scientists, engineers, and legislators to be conscious of each problem our coastal zone faces and the tricky side effects that may come with them. When restoring our coast, we must look at the big picture as well as the key parts involved in our coastal wetland system!
Featured image of a Haptophyte from https://johandecelle.wordpress.com/2014/10/02/a-novel-diversity-of-haptophytes-unveiled-by-metabarcoding/