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OLI Grant: Exploratory grant for research at the Liquid Jungle Laboratory: Ascidiacea of Panama, Pacific Side

Grant Funded: 2005

Ascidians are a growing global problem and yet, a potential asset. Ascidians are marine invertebrate chordates that live from the shoreline to deep water attached to hard surfaces and that use a system of incurrent and excurrent siphons to filter feed on phytoplankton in the water column. Nonindigenous ascidian species are currently invading several parts of the world, biofouling coastal environments by encrusting many types of artificial and natural substrates. Both solitary and colonial invasive species can thrive in protected bays and harbors and dominate the fauna. Some invasive species smother clams and are a threat to shellfish aquaculture. On the other hand, people in many countries eat ascidians. Plus, biomedical research has discovered antibodies in some ascidians that destroy the AIDS virus, tumors, and other diseases debilitating and deadly to humans.

Increasing anthropogenic nitrogen pollution levels in the last 20-40 years, are associated with an increase in the abundance of invasive, nonindigenous species of ascidians in tropical waters. The spread of non-endemic species of ascidians has been attributed to the shipping industry. The Panama Canal draws a large number of ships, thus increasing the chances of nonindigenous species being introduced to the area. We propose to do research on these important organisms in the tropical waters at the Liquid Jungle Lab (LJL). The pristine quality of the LJL area may be home to a more native population of ascidians, whereas a polluted area elsewhere in Panama may contain a fauna dominated by non-endemic species. Our previous work on ascidians and involvement with current research provides the background for us to initiate exploratory work at the LJL. There are three main areas of ascidian study that we would like to pursue: natural products, invasive species ecology, and relationship to pollution.

Originally published: February 1, 2005