World of the Myofauna

The research station of Fundación Huinay in the Comau fjord (Lakes Region) delves deep into the unknowns of marine life in Patagonia. While scientists at the station continue to see and categorize potential new species, visiting scientists Dr. Andreas Rhaesa (Universitӓt Hamburg, Germany) and Matthew Lee (Universidad de Los Lagos, Chile) seek to explore and understand those creatures which cannot easily be seen. Each are experts in the little known world of the Meiofauna, the vast and incredibly diverse range of multicellular animals which occupy a murky, ubiquitous zone of life. Meiofauna are larger than simple cellular life, but are animals so complex and yet so small one can hardly conceive of their existence.

During a five day stay at the labs, the researchers collaborated to sample sediments from various environments in Comau fjord and extract the interstitial fluids in the sediment to observe life within these confided spaces. The interstitial space is the water moving between microscopic gaps in the sediment grains and it’s a habitat thoroughly occupied and utilized by a unique assemblage of Meiofauna. Describing these tiny creatures can be a daunting task, requiring delicate, tedious labor in the labs. Even one 50mL sample may take days or more of dedicated laboratory work to process. There are 20 known phyla branches in the Meiofauna group and just one, Nematodes, may be as diverse as all insect life. Examining the species living in the upper sediment means observing minute details, as well as careful handling of the fragile, often translucent organisms.

Dr. Rhaesa is particularly interested in discovering new species and observing what known species are present in the sediment, while Dr. Lee will focus on the ecological community of Meiofauna, such as dominant groups or community structure between different environments. Their range of taxonomic and ecological understanding provides a holistic approach to studying Meiofauna diversity. Together, their visit has started new partnerships and cracked open the door to an unseen world in Huinay. The researchers will study samples collected in the Comau fjord as well as in other parts of Chile; the discoveries they make are only limited to the diversity and strangeness of the Meiofauna studied.

What is more interesting, the world you see or the one you don’t see?

What is more interesting, the world you see or the one you don’t see?

The group of scientist visiting Huinay at the moment to conduct their research would choose the latter. Eduardo Castro-Nallar, assistant professor for bio-informatics and integrative biology at the University of Andrés Bello, and his colleagues are taking a look at the microbial communities that live in the Leptepu fjord. As they already collected samples last year at two different depths (closer to the surface at 5 meters and at 20 meters) they can now compare their results to this year’s samples (one sample is about 40l each) and see how the microbial communities have been developing over time. The group of scientist set out to find the effects the changing of the seasons, varying temperatures and the salmon production that is widely spread in the fjord, have on these basic live forms.

Processing the water samples through different filters, they extract algae, bacteria and viruses. They are working with a standardized process, which can be very boring and lengthy, sometimes until late in the night. But so far they are very happy with the lab equipment, the location of the station, that offers access to a very unique and remote ecosystem, and the food (which is obviously the most important thing). They even went so far as to call Huinay a “Research-Resort”, a complement we gracefully accepted.

On their first trip to Huinay they were surprised that these microbes are completely unique and therefore have not yet been studied. That is also the reason why Guus Martjn Teunisse, a M.Sc Student of Biology and Bioinformatics at the University of Amsterdam, is part of the team. He is developing a system to categorize bacteria, viruses and genes to shorten the identification process for microbes and to offer the full picture of different ecosystems.

They could confirm a decline in total biomass compared to the samples from 2016, which could be a consequence from seasonal changes in the ecosystem. But more important than this, is the possible effect the solmoneras  have on the microbial communities with their excessive use of antibiotics. For the last 20 years, the salmon production in Chile has been growing 42% per annum, making it the 2nd largest salmon producer after Norway. The lack of regulation of the industry has permitted salmon farms to use higher quantities of antibiotics, including medicine that is also used for fighting human diseases.

 

And that’s exactly the heart of the project; finding out if or how antibiotics affect the ecosystem, microbial communities and human beings.

Eduardo and his team plan to come back next year to observe the sea lions and to determine if they or other animals in the food chain have been affected by the input of antibiotics in the aquaculture pens. Regarding the development of the bacteria, they are going to travel down south into fjords that are not affected by salmoneras to obtain more data for future comparisons.