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The Warsaw Voice » Special Sections » April 1, 2015
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Studying Life Beneath the Waves
April 1, 2015   
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A Polish Ph.D. student is conducting pioneering research on periphyton, a mixture of algae, cyanobacteria and other microbes that covers objects submerged in water and is an important source of food for sea creatures.

Periphyton also causes headaches for ship owners, as it damages the hulls of ships.

Covering rocks, breakwaters, piers and even trash, periphyton is a vital part of coastal ecosystems. Organisms that form periphyton thrive in salt water, and the amount and the biodiversity of periphyton largely depends on salinity levels. The impact of salinity on periphyton in the Baltic Sea is being studied by Monika Orchowska from the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oceanology.

Salinity is a key factor that shapes life in seas and oceans. The concentration of salt varies considerably in different parts of the Baltic Sea and researchers have long been interested in how this shapes marine ecosystems. Different concentration levels can cause some organisms to vanish and others to take their place. “I am observing the periphyton on the Baltic Sea’s rocky coast across a vast area that takes in Sweden and Norway,” says Orchowska. “I’m looking to identify the connections between the biodiversity of the periphyton and various environmental factors, salt concentration levels in particular. Differences in these are extremely high in the Baltic Sea, ranging from 0.5 to 30 parts-per-thousand [ppt] units.” Some marine organisms can only survive in water with full salinity of 35 ppt, while in lower salt concentrations, their place is taken by organisms that thrive in less salty water. Similarly, fresh-water organisms grow in waters with no salt content. Meanwhile, biodiversity tends to increase with salinity level.

The water in the Baltic Sea is more salty in the west due to the proximity of the North Sea. Rich periphyton that is typical of open seas can appear in that area, whereas the decreasing salinity to the east can result in periphyton that comprises only several microbe species.

“Periphyton is a valuable element of the marine environment, as other organisms grow on it,” says Orchowska. “Periphyton concentrations are often compared to coral reefs. They are densely packed, because their living space is limited to a rock or some other hard surface such as a pier.”

The results of Orchowska’s research could be used in environmental protection, and could also help producers of materials designed to prevent the growth of periphyton, especially protective paint for ship hulls. A layer of periphyton reduces the cruising speed of vessels, which in the case of ships covering long distances causes much higher fuel consumption and, consequently, generates additional operating costs. Periphyton can also weaken the materials hulls are made of.

Meanwhile, maps of the distribution of periphyton are needed to, for example, mark out areas protected under the Natura 2000 European environmental protection program. Authorities in the Baltic region will likely use the results of Orchowska’s research to assess the environmental impact of various structures that are placed in the sea. Finally, the results could be used in the construction industry to help engineers pick materials resistant to species found in periphyton as well as choose the best sites for new projects.

Karolina Olszewska
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