Hurricane Harvey made landfall at the San Jose Islands on Aug. 25, 2017, then slowly made its way to the Houston-Galveston area, producing more than 51 inches of rainfall in a five-day period.

This record amount of rainfall in this coastal watershed resulted in unprecedented conditions for marine life in Galveston Bay. Jessica Labonté of Texas A&M University at Galveston stepped in to examine how these large amounts of freshwater from the storm affected microorganisms, such as viruses and bacteria.

The base layer for the marine food chain are microorganisms. Viruses and bacteria play major roles in upholding the success of these ecosystems. Viruses in the bay can be scary news, especially after having enjoyed the local coastal waters, but viruses actually have a major function in maintaining healthy coastal ecosystems. Viruses help maintain ecosystem stability, for example by controlling algal blooms and bacterial population levels through viral lysis. When an extreme event impacts a bay area there are major changes to the water quality and microorganisms can be greatly affected.

Hurricane Harvey was a concern to scientists since tremendous amounts of flood waters were introduced to the bay as runoff, sewage, and potential chemical contaminations. The Galveston Bay area is extremely important to local industries, fisheries and tourism, so there was immense interest to explore the impacts on marine communities and the possibility of the introduction of new species to the ecosystems.

Labonté’s research will improve the understanding of the adaptations and resilience that viruses have to the changes that occur in marine environments after such a catastrophic flooding event.

Beginning six days after the storm and flooding, a team of five researchers from the university’s Marine Biology and Marine Sciences departments collected water samples. Some of the tests performed on these samples included the fundamental water quality, identifying organic matter and human contaminants, chemicals, such as heavy metals, and oil or petroleum byproducts, identifying viruses, microbial communities, phytoplankton and zooplankton abundance. Labonté’s team characterized microbial DNA and RNA, their genetic fingerprint.

Once the DNA and RNA materials were extracted, the scientists were able to use the genetic material to assess the microbial diversity and concentrations in the bay area during the extreme event. These results helped Labonté’s team to identify any new microorganisms as compared to the previously found viruses in bay waters. Currently, Labonté cannot provide further details on the results of her study as her team continues its analyses. However, she was able to tell us that no harmful viruses have been found, along with a return to normal, pre-storm virus levels, within five to six weeks after Hurricane Harvey.

Once Labonté’s work is finished the results will be displayed in the Outreach Center of the Sea Life Facility at the university, providing for the engagement of the university community and the general public to learn and understand the impacts and importance of viruses and bacteria in Galveston Bay.

Autumn Raven and Rosa Wolf are students at Texas A&M University Galveston in the ocean and coastal resources program.

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