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Exploring the Role of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in Marine Ecosystem Health and Function

Kalina Grabb, Ph.D., 2022
Colleen Hansel, Advisor

With the rapid decline of coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs and seagrasses, it is crucial to better understand the health of these ecosystem to prevent future loss. Reactive oxygen speices (ROS), such as superoxide and hydrogen peroxide, play an underappreciated role in both organism health and ecosystem biogeochemical cycles. This thesis lays the foundation to measure and identify ROS production by coral in situ and through genomic analysis while also highlighting the important role that ROS can play within biogeochemical cycling within seagrass ecosystems. To measure in situ extracellular superoxide, we develop the first DIver-operated Submersible Chemiluminescent sensOr (DISCO), enabling high resolution, non-invasive measurements in real time. We further refine DISCO by making it more compact, user-friendly, adaptable, and robust, enabling measurements of superoxide across a diversity of environments. Using DISCO, I observe species-specific variation in extracellular superoxide concentrations associated with healthy coral. Despite these variations across species, bioinformatic analysis of coral proteins reveal that nearly all coral species have the extracellular superoxide-producing enzyme NADPH oxidase (NOX), and thus the genetic potential to produce extracellular superoxide. This suggests that coral species likely exhibit differential NOX regulation and expression as a function of physiological responses to external stressors, which may play a role in coral immunity. I then turn to seagrass ecosystems, where I observe rapid hydrogen peroxide production and decay through predominantly reductive pathways. This has implications on the environmental redox state and biogeochemical cycling, impacting the ecosystem services that seagrasses provide to marine environments and coastal communities. Overall, this thesis highlights the potential role that ROS may be playing in organism and ecosystem health and lays the groundwork to further develop ROS as a tool to protect these coastal ecosystems against further degradation.