The University of Michigan Water Center has awarded an additional $758,000 in research and capacity building grants, $300,000 of which went to projects involving the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Since becoming established in fall 2012, more than $5.6 million in grants have been awarded to increase freshwater research capacity at U-M and across the Great Lakes region.

Professor Greg Dick is the principal investigator on a $250,000 grant for “Building capacity for freshwater science: integrating microbial genomics, environmental chemistry, and ecosystem processes to understand harmful algal blooms.” Dick is an assistant professor in EEB and Earth and Environmental Sciences (EARTH). The goal of the grant is to integrate methods and add perspectives from diverse disciplines to build capacity for understanding the causes and consequences of harmful algal blooms.

Collaborators include EEB Professors Vincent Denef, Tim James, George Kling, and Dr. Melissa Duhaime along with others from the U-M Cooperative Institute for Limnology and Ecosystems Research (CILER), U-M School of Pharmacy, EARTH, U-M Water Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (NOAA-GLERL).

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are a global threat to freshwater ecosystems, water resources, and human health. The interplay of microbial, ecological, and chemical processes causes toxin production, formation of lake “dead zones,” and proliferation of disease-causing organisms. Further, a confluence of factors spanning multiple disciplines such as agricultural practices, climate change, and hydrologic conditions have set the stage for increasing the frequency, duration and toxicity of HABs.

This project will contribute solutions to this problem by integrating new approaches to a local natural laboratory, Lake Erie, which experienced the largest HAB in recorded history in 2011. The project assembles a world-class research team to integrate methods and add perspectives from diverse disciplines, building a unique capacity for understanding the causes and consequences of HABs. This approach complements and extends existing freshwater capabilities in climate and hydrology at both U-M and a local federal partner, NOAA-GLERL.

The project will increase the breadth and depth of freshwater research at U-M by creating a team of 11 researchers from five U-M units and a federal agency, bringing cutting-edge genomics and chemistry and adding entirely new dimensions while building upon existing strengths and programs. Project results will be synthesized and disseminated with a publicly available database, and a capstone symposium to highlight findings and launch new initiatives. Together with recently funded and proposed projects, this novel approach will poise U-M to be a leader in HABs and related freshwater research and open new avenues for external funding.

Denef is the principal investigator on a $50,000 grant for “Environmental DNA-based quantification of dreissenid mussels and their impacts on freshwater bacterioplankton: building the foundation for a U-M program focused on the interactions between freshwater invasive species and microbial communities.” Denef’s collaborators are from CILER and the U-M Water Center. The project goal is to establish an assay using environmental DNA to assess zebra mussel abundance and its impacts on microbial communities in inland lakes.

The impacts of dreissenid mussels, a widespread and abundant invasive species, on biological communities has been the focus of much study but very little is known regarding the impacts of these mussels on freshwater bacterial communities. Bacteria are the most important processors of organic carbon originating from local phytoplankton populations and runoff from the surrounding land are key drivers of other elemental cycles including nitrogen and phosphorus. The functioning of bacterial communities determines ecosystem processes and services, such as carbon source/sink properties of aquatic systems, nutrient regeneration, and release of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.

This project will establish a novel quantitative assay for rapid zebra mussel population assessment and will reveal how zebra mussels affect bacterial abundance, community structure, and functioning. The eDNA assay will be used to assess zebra mussel invasion and relative population size in 16 regional inland lakes. For four of the lakes, relative impacts of dreissenid mussels will be determined by characterizing differences in the pelagic (neither close to the bottom nor near the shore) and benthic (lowest level of a body of water) microbial community structure and metabolic potential using metagenomics approaches – sequencing of environmental DNA extracted from filtered microbial cells.

Invasion microbiology is a fledgling field. Impacts of invasive species on bacterial communities have received limited attention thus far and advancing research in this area will increase the depth and breadth of freshwater research at U-M. This project will form the foundation of a program on campus focused on the impact of invasive species on microbial communities and their functioning relevant to global elemental cycling including climate change, nuisance blooms, and public health.

There are a few other EEB affiliated collaborators involved with U-M Water Center grants (not previously announced in EEB web news), including:

Professor Joel Blum, “Coupling mercury, lead, and strontium isotopes in archived Great Lakes precipitation samples to improve pollutant source apportionment with new and novel techniques.”

Professor Paul Webb, “Restoring, retrofitting, and recoupling Michigan’s Great Lakes shorelands.”

Dr. Mary Anne Evans (EEB Ph.D. 2007), a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, “Saginaw Bay optimization decision tool: linking management actions to multiple ecological benefits via integrated modeling.”

The request for proposals offered two levels of funding: leveraging grants, up to $50,000, to develop curriculum, support instrument acquisition, or support graduate students and fellows; and grants up to $250,000 for larger, cross-departmental efforts that cultivate new research partnerships and capabilities as the basis for long-term freshwater research efforts at U-M. A primary goal of the initiative is to support projects that address key freshwater challenges at the interface of the natural, social, physical, and health sciences.

Projects were selected based on the ability of teams to initiate new freshwater collaborations on campus, apply on-campus expertise to freshwater topics in new and novel ways, and identify and develop new freshwater research programs on campus. The large projects, in particular, go beyond a typical research project focused on answering a research question with emphasis on building new relationships, working across disciplines, and growing capacity on campus to conduct freshwater research in areas that are not currently supported at the university.

The Water Center is part of the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute. It is supported by funds from the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation and the University of Michigan.

Read more from the U-M Water Center 

Read more in previous EEB web news:

Two EEB researchers among new U-M Water Center grant awardees for freshwater research 

Elgersma awarded U-M Water Center research grant