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Climate Change, Marine Mucilage and Microbial Pathogens in the Mediterranean Sea

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A recent paper published in PLoS suggests that the warming of the Mediterranean Sea's surface water is turning "marine snow," mostly organic detritus falling from the upper layers of the water column, into marine mucilage, a gelatinous evolving stage of marine snow, which can reach huge dimensions and cover areas of hundreds of kilometres of coastline . The authors believe that this mucilage creates an ephemeral and extreme habitat in which pathogenic bacteria can survive and spread significant distances.

Background

Marine snow (small amorphous aggregates with colloidal properties) is present in all oceans of the world. Surface water warming and the consequent increase of water column stability can favour the coalescence of marine snow into marine mucilage, large marine aggregates representing an ephemeral and extreme habitat. Marine mucilage characterize aquatic systems with altered environmental conditions.

Methodology/Principal Findings

We investigated, by means of molecular techniques, viruses and prokaryotes within the mucilage and in surrounding seawater to examine the potential of mucilage to host new microbial diversity and/or spread marine diseases. We found that marine mucilage contained a large and unexpectedly exclusive microbial biodiversity and hosted pathogenic species that were absent in surrounding seawater. We also investigated the relationship between climate change and the frequency of mucilage in the Mediterranean Sea over the last 200 years and found that the number of mucilage outbreaks increased almost exponentially in the last 20 years. The increasing frequency of mucilage outbreaks is closely associated with the temperature anomalies.

Conclusions/Significance

We conclude that the spreading of mucilage in the Mediterranean Sea is linked to climate-driven sea surface warming. The mucilage can act as a controlling factor of microbial diversity across wide oceanic regions and could have the potential to act as a carrier of specific microorganisms, thereby increasing the spread of pathogenic bacteria.
 
 

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