Naturalis marine biologist Jan Macher has recently earned a BEN research grant worth € 100,000.-. He will be using it to study very small organisms that live in sandy beaches.
The Biodiversity-Ecology-Nature grants are awarded by the German Bauer-Hollmann Stiftung, which is a part of research funder DSZ. This grant allows postdoctoral researchers to work for two years on research involving the North or the Baltic Sea. Macher will use it to study the so-called meiofauna in North Sea beaches.
“Meiofauna” is the term used for life that is small - smaller than 1mm, typically - but not quite microscopic. In a traditional study of beach meiofauna, what you basically do is you dig up a bit of sand, and then sieve it. In your sieve is now a whole zoo of tiny little animals, from very different groups: worms, little crustaceans, tardigrades and many more. Telling the animals from even one group apart is a specialized job, and doing all of them is very difficult indeed. Which is where Macher’s plan comes in: he will use the DNA and RNA in the sand to tell what species are in there and how they react to different environmental conditions. “Molecular tools like barcoding and metabarcoding can tackle this issue by allowing detection of species based on genetic features”, Macher says.
That’s important, because the meiofauna have diverse ecological features, short generation times and rapidly respond to environmental change. That makes the animals very suitable for ecological monitoring of sandy beaches.
Macher’s international project has two main aims: to assess the biodiversity of sandy beach meiofauna of the southern North Sea in the Netherlands and Germany, using both morphological and molecular methods. It will also identify the main environmental drivers that shape species richness, distribution and molecular functional diversity of meiofauna in sandy beach ecosystems on small and large geographic scales. Macher: “This project will pave the way for the use of meiofaunal communities for ecological monitoring of sandy beaches, a task that is urgent in times of global change and sea level rise.”