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OLI Grant: The Impact of Copper Mining on the Biological Diversity of Macroalgae in Northern Chile

Grant Funded: 2002

Proposed Research

Human activities have led to drastic declines in biological diversity in terrestrial and marine ecosystems. In marine systems, this is often associated with deterioration of water quality, but the specific stressors responsible are often difficult to identify. Copper is a ubiquitous contaminant in harbors that is harmful to organisms at the base of marine food chains, and has been implicated in shifts in community structure in marine ecosystems. It is difficult to identify specific effects in urban harbors because so many other contaminants, including other heavy metals and pesticides, are present. Here, I propose to study the effects of copper on the diversity of macroalgae (i.e. seaweed) populations in a coastal region in Chile where massive quantities of Cu mine tailings have been dumped for many years. I will collaborate with a Chilean ecologist who has studied the problem for several years, but needs a chemist collaborator to continue the project. We seek to understand how copper can affect shoreline communities by decreasing the number of species of algae ? and the invertebrates that feed on them- by more than 90%. Why does copper have such a negative effect? Why do some species tolerate high Cu better than others? Can we identify the emergence of Cu resistant sub-populations of algae? The results will provide important information at the species and physiological level about how a contaminant like Cu can affect biological diversity. Armed with this information, I hope to be able to use macroalgae as probes of contaminant effects in more complex regimes like harbors here in the northeast. The project also represents a significant educational contribution to the aquatic sciences community of a developing country with critical marine resources.

Originally published: February 1, 2002