Seagrass research

Brothers receives grant from Murdock Trust for research on diseases threatening seagrasses

The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust recently awarded $58,926 to Walla Walla University to study a disease that is killing valuable seagrasses worldwide.

Every year, the world loses an estimated 7% of its seagrasses, according to research from the Smithsonian. This is alarming because seagrasses are among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth and provide necessary habitat for fish. They also protect shorelines from erosion and filter out pollution.

Seagrass wasting disease is one reason for the decline and one that scientists little understand. WWU joins efforts worldwide to study the problem.

“We were impressed with Walla Walla University’s attention to this problem. It’s an environmental problem with significant ramifications for human and wildlife communities worldwide,” said Moses Lee, senior director for Scientific Research and Enrichment Programs at M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.

Seagrass wasting disease is caused by a tiny marine eukaryotic organism, which produces dark lesions on the seagrass blades and reduces how much the seagrass can photosynthesize, eventually killing the seagrass. Recent studies have indicated that 50% of the seagrass meadows in the Salish Sea, where the WWU Rosario Beach Marine Laboratory is located, are affected by outbreaks of seagrass wasting disease. Scientists do not know exactly what is causing these outbreaks.

“Specifically, I am interested in collaborating with undergraduates to answer the question: what factors influence outbreaks of seagrass wasting disease in the Salish Sea, and to what extent can we predict, and therefore prevent, disease outbreaks?” said C.J. Brothers, WWU assistant professor of biology.

The Murdock Trust provides stipends and supplies for two undergraduate students to work full-time with Brothers on this research during the next three summers at the Rosario Beach Marine Laboratory. The team will travel to coastal sites around the Salish Sea that have seagrass meadows and document how severely the sites are affected by disease. Back in the laboratory, they will use molecular techniques to determine how abundant the pathogen is at these various sites and what factors may be causing the seagrass to be more vulnerable to disease outbreaks.

This grant marks a total of $205,412 awarded to Walla Walla University by the Murdock Trust since 2011.

“The WWU Biology Department and our undergraduate students benefit greatly from support by the Murdock Trust,” Brothers said. The Murdock Trust not only provides opportunities for students to perform cutting-edge research, but every year the Murdock Trust hosts a conference for undergraduate students from small liberal arts universities to present their research. WWU sends students to this conference every year. “It is always a highlight for the students to be able to share what they have been working on and network with other students from around the Pacific Northwest,” said Brothers.

“Our benefactor, Jack Murdock, believed strongly in the value and power of scientific research, exploration, and inspiration,” said Steve Moore, executive director of the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. “We look for institutions investing tirelessly in growing our scientific knowledge and inspiring the next generation of scientific researchers and educators.”

The M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust, created by the will of the late Melvin J. (Jack) Murdock, provides grants to organizations in five states of the Pacific Northwest—Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington—that seek to strengthen the region’s educational and cultural base in creative and sustainable ways. Since its inception in 1975, the Trust has awarded more than 6,700 grants totaling more than $990 million.

Posted July 1, 2019

Smiling, blond woman in black sweater with black and white shirt.
C.J. Brothers will be studying the causes of seagrass disease in the Salish Sea with undergraduate students from WWU.
small brightly-colored boats lying on rocky beach in warm afternoon sun.  Rocky cliff in distance with small house nearby.
Brothers and three students will be studying the eukaryotic organism, which produces dark lesions on seagrass blades, reducing photosynthesis and eventually killing the seagrass.