Kelps (brown algae from the order Laminariales) constitute enormous energy sources for coastal benthic secondary production; from temperate, to polar rocky ecosystems (especially in the Northern hemisphere). Kelp forests provide important three-dimensional, underwater habitats that offer shelter to a vast biodiversity of species, and structure important food webs. The seafloor shading produced by their canopy influences interspecific competition among algae, and by dampening wave surge they are also capable of altering local oceanography and ecology. Kelp play important ecological and biogeochemical key roles, and due to their multiple industrial applications, the economic importance of seaweed aquaculture is increasing. Considering that kelp aquaculture provides such relevant ecosystem services, pathogens can be a significant economic burden; especially when the reduction in genetic diversity of domesticated seaweed makes them more susceptible to abiotic stressors, disease and parasites. If seaweed farms function as a reservoir for disease, that could impact natural populations as well. However, little is known about seaweed diseases and, moreover, besides from biofouling there is so far no documented experience with macroalgal diseases in Norway. Most of the research has been focused on bacteria, and with less frequency fungi, protists, and endophytic algae species; nevertheless, viruses are still in the black box.
Viruses play critical roles in the structure and function of aquatic food webs: their top-down regulation affects population size and diversity, and genetic material transfer; and through the viral shunt they recycle nutrients interfering in the global carbon and other chemical cycles. However, only a few studies have characterized viruses in seaweeds to date. Description of viral diversity infecting kelp is necessary to understand the biological interactions that impact marine ecosystems, like competition, biodiversity patterns and the regulation of keystone species. Host-range describes the width of organisms a virus is capable of infecting, helping with classifications and identifying evolutive processes between parasite and host. It also helps to understand the connections between other ecosystem components, since parasites can adapt to overcome host or environmental limitations, while hosts can adapt to overcome the negative impact of parasites.
ViralICE therefore intends to manifest viral contribution structuring ecological communities and impacting ecosystem functioning of the most important foundation kelp species of the Norwegian coast. The present project will also assess the potential ecological consequences of climate change on kelppathogen interactions, which are predicted to be more frequent and intense and lead to adaptive virus evolution and host species jumps, by evaluating the host’s performance under variable controlled environmental conditions. Getting insight into the driving forces and consequences of changes in the ecosystem function and structure will be relevant for the aquaculture industry for a sustainable management under future climate change scenarios. This knowledge could be potentially used to favour a reduced-cost, efficient and ethical production, promoting the industry’s development nationally, and making it more competitive internationally. Lastly, we will build relevant networks between local and international research communities, industry and government. When working together helping alleviate present and future constraints on the further growth of the industry, without dismissing environmental impacts, we will also increase social acceptability of aquaculture, and protect our natural marine ecosystems.
In order to achieve these goals, we account with a team of recognized specialists in marine biology, and we will make use of the leading-edge technology available in microbiology and metagenomics to keep Norwegian research heading this promising field.
Novelty and ambition
Increasing our knowledge of viral epidemics on kelp is the first step for sustainable management of our coast ecosystems, and future sustainable food production. Thus, our research efforts concentrate on phaeoviral infections in kelp, due to their key role in structure and function of aquatic ecosystems, as well as for the seaweed industry.
The recent discovery of viruses in different genera of kelps (McKeown, D. et al. 2018) concedes especial novelty to this project, and we expect to contribute to the field with relevant experimental data on the ecological impact of these viruses in natural and cultured ecosystems, under a climate change framework.
Understanding viral-host interactions in kelp will lead to sustainable value creation, proper management and monitoring to mitigate possible future outbreaks and prevent significant ecological impacts, since forecasting might be the best way to manage marine disease.