California Sea Grant Announces Funding for 17 New Marine Research Projects

California Sea Grant has awarded funding to 17 marine research projects to further the program’s expertise along new avenues of scientific inquiry.

In total, about $550,000 was awarded to the year-long projects, including traineeships for 13 graduate student researchers.

“We are excited to see some new faces in the Sea Grant fold and some new research approaches,” says California Sea Grant Assistant Director Shauna Oh.

Some of the new names – people who have never before received California Sea Grant research funds – include Diana Steller, a marine biologist at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, who will be studying red coralline algae nodules around the Channel Islands. Not your typical slimy algal goo, these algae (called rhodoliths) tricked even the first scientists into thinking they were corals – because they build an intricate, calcium-based outer covering and can transform sandy areas into a complex, three-dimensional reef habitat.

“It’s so cool,” says Steller, an avid diver and head of Moss Landing’s research diving program. “It’s like we found a whole new habitat to explore right out our door.”

Another new addition to the Sea Grant portfolio is Jesse Dillon, a professor in microbiology at Cal State Long Beach. Dillon’s area of expertise is extremophiles: microbes that thrive in unlikely corners of the planet – polar ice, deep-sea vents and hyper-saline marshes.

“The Sea Grant award gives us seed money to demonstrate the efficacy of stable isotope probing in characterizing microbial food webs in salt marshes,” Dillon says. Translation: The method will tell scientists who is eating whom, at the microbial level. The mud-loving, salt-tolerant microbes are important to society at large because of their potentially huge role in removing carbon from the air and putting it in the ground.

“Our grant was written in the context of rising sea levels and whether wetland loss might measurably affect global carbon cycling,” Dillon says. “That is the big picture.”

Wei-Chun Chin, an assistant engineering professor at UC Merced, is yet another Sea Grant first-timer, funded to study the physiology of toxin-producing marine algae, in particular the intracellular chemical signaling processes that trigger toxin release.

“In animal cells, calcium ions trigger the release of hormones,” Chin explains. “I want to verify if the same signaling mechanism occurs in harmful algae.”

Xiaochun Wang, a computer modeler with the Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering at UCLA, is yet another newcomer, funded to develop the ability to forecast upwelling intensities along the California coast 48 hours in advance. High-frequency radar data, 2D surface current observations, as well as single-point temperature and salinity measurements, will be used to truth-check the forecasts.

Alison Purcell, an assistant professor in environmental sciences at Humboldt State University, is also receiving her first Sea Grant award. She will be investigating the pros and cons of eradicating the invasive cordgrass Spartina densiflora in tidal marshes of Humboldt Bay. In particular, she hopes to establish whether cordgrass removal increases or decreases total net primary productivity in the marshes.