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DISCOVRE - Diversity, Systematics and Connectivity of Vulnerable Reef Ecosystems Project:

Microbial Ecology of Deep-Sea Coral Ecosystems


A large colony of Paragorgia arborea (commonly known as bubblegum coral) growing in Baltimore Canyon.
A large colony of Paragorgia arborea (commonly known as bubblegum coral) growing in Baltimore Canyon. Image courtesy of Deepwater Canyons 2012 Expedition, NOAA-OER/BOEM. [larger version]

Most people are familiar with tropical coral reefs, located in warm, shallow waters. However, coral ecosystems also exist hundreds and even thousands of meters below the ocean's surface where it is cold and completely dark.

The DISCOVRE Project is an integrated, multidisciplinary effort to investigate topics related to unique and fragile deep-sea corals from the microscopic level to the ecosystem level, including components of microbiology, population genetics, paleoecology, food webs, taxonomy, community ecology, physical oceanography, and mapping. The microbial ecology task of this project is focused on the identification, characterization, and enumeration of the microbial communities present in corals and sediments in these habitats, including sites in the Gulf of Mexico and deepwater canyons off the eastern coast of the United States.

Microbes are everywhere and are the critical foundation of an ecosystem—their chemical cues control settlement of many marine invertebrates, they serve as a food source for small animals, they are symbionts within megafauna like corals, sponges and mussels, and they are the engine that powers biogeochemical cycles for essential elements like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. The goal of the microbial ecology task is to further our understanding of the diversity and functional roles of microbes in deep-sea coral ecosystems, as a means to better predict the resilience of these environments to impacts such as fishing, oil and gas exploration, and changing climate.

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