Seagrasses are marine plants that play a critical role globally in coastal ecosystems. They provide habitat and food for marine organisms, protect coastlines from erosion, increase water quality, and sequester carbon. Currently, seagrasses are under threat worldwide due to nutrient inputs, urbanization, and ocean warming.

Recovery and restoration of these critical ecosystems have been challenging, partly due to shrinking plant populations and lack of management of the underlying environmental disturbances. While actions such as using stress-adapted seagrass populations as donors of plants and seeds for restoration can help to increase their tolerance to environmental stresses, these efforts are limited by our knowledge of adaptation processes in seagrasses and the current limits of the species' physiology.

MBL Associate Scientist Mirta Teichberg and Adjunct Scientist Elena Lopez Peredo of Rochester Institute of Technology have received a grant from Oceankind to develop a proof of concept for the application of biotechnological tools in the seagrass Zostera marina. The final aim of this project is the ability to genetically engineer this charismatic plant, which is a keystone species in marine ecosystems and displays highly specialized adaptations to the underwater environment.

The scientists will use plant transgenesis to understand the genetic underpinnings of the basic physiological limitations controlling plant growth and survival under stressful conditions. This mechanistic understanding will also provide a window to possible solutions to overcome the intrinsic restrictions of the plant’s physiology. The project also includes steps to develop methods of tissue regeneration in seagrasses, which is essential after the introduction of genetic material in the plant cells but is currently a bottleneck for using these tools in seagrasses in the future.

Although biotechnological approaches have been widely applied in crops to successfully increase plant resistance to drought, pests, and temperature, little research to date has been carried out on its potential use to understand and predict responses of marine organisms to environmental stressors, such as ocean warming, and to contribute to their conservation effort. This project is a step in that direction.