A mug full of sand from an unassuming beach in Scotland has revealed a far richer and more complex web of microscopic creatures living within the tiny 'ecosystem' than have previously been identified.
A paper published in the new online journal Nature Communications shows how this was achieved using a new method that allows DNA sequencing for large samples of meiofaunal (small animals living in marine sediments). The new technique is set to transform current methods of species identification and environmental analysis, providing new insights into the structure and size of those communities as well as new potential applications.
The project was part of the PhD thesis of Vera Fonseca (Centre of Marine Sciences -- CCMAR's member) and was conducted by an international team, led by Dr. Simon Creer at Bangor University and had also the participation of Prof. Deborah Power (CCMAR -- University of Algarve).
The team was able to identify and quantify high numbers of different species within a small sample indicating they contained large communities of these small animals (ranging between 45 microns- 1mm). Developed to assess communities within seabed sediments, the technique could be adopted for any ecosystem inhabited by microscopic organisms.
"The sequencing techniques are orders of magnitude faster and cheaper than traditional approaches. To complete the same work using traditional methods would take unquantifiable years of working hours to manually identify each individual species from a sample," said Fonseca, lead author.
In the year of Biodiversity it is important to highlight how essential these studies are for the world largest habitat: the marine sediments. The new method paves the way for future research into topics as diverse as climate change, the effect of pollution on ecosystem health and the distribution of meiofauna from the deep sea to the polar environments.
"For the first time it was possible to access levels of biodiversity from marine communities using pyrosequencing techniques, which can be applied to habitats as rich and important as the Ria Formosa," adds Prof. Power.
The project was financed by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (Vera Fonseca) and by the Natural Environment Research Council (Simon Creer).
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