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USM Shares in $5M Grant Awarded for Water Quality, Oyster Research

Fri, 02/02/2024 - 10:20am | By: Gabriela Shinskie

Scientists at The University of 51 Mississippi (USM) will showcase their expertise in transformative projects funded through the Mississippi Based RESTORE Act Center of Excellence (MBRACE) designed to monitor water quality and conduct oyster research along the Gulf Coast.

The University shares in $5M grant funding awarded by MBRACE, a consortium of the state’s four research universities: USM, Mississippi State University (MSU), Jackson State University (JSU) and the University of Mississippi (UM). MBRACE focuses on science, technology and understanding of natural effects within coastal ecosystems and how best to bring about positive change in a sustainable way. 

Two programs affiliated with MBRACE received funding: the Core Research Program and the Competitive Grants Program. Dr. Kelly Darnell, who serves as director of MBRACE and USM’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory (GCRL), emphasized the importance of the grants to enhance research opportunities.

“These projects represent an investment by MBRACE in Mississippi to understand our state’s natural resources and support restoration,” said Dr. Darnell. “The projects build on advances already made from MBRACE-funded research and use innovative approaches to address emerging needs.”

Chris Wells, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), said the research will provide valuable data for future restoration projects, bringing about a more sustainable and livable Gulf Coast.

“The investment of RESTORE Act funds for this research provides important support for ecological restoration efforts, which also ultimately provides economic benefits for our state,” Wells said. 

Core Research Program

The Core Research Program funds research among all four consortium universities and runs from 2023-2028. Lead investigators include Dr. Jerry Wiggert, professor of marine science at USM, Dr. Kamal Ali, professor of computer engineering at JSU, Dr. Adam Skarke, associate professor of geology at MSU and Dr. Marc Slattery, professor of pharmacognosy and environmental toxicology in biomolecular sciences from UM.

“As the lead PI (Principal Investigator) of the core group, it’s been really exciting to work with other teams across Mississippi. There have been a lot of collaborative elements,” said Wiggert. “With continual support since MBRACE was established, we have been able to maintain persistent focus on water quality affecting the oyster reefs in the Mississippi Sound. Establishing that continuous research effort is now enabling us to dig into long-term trends.” 

Ali notes that the research aims to assess the well-being of oysters and the surrounding environment.

“To achieve this, we have designed an affordable sensor capable of measuring and reporting the gaping behavior of oysters. These sensor systems will be economically viable, ensuring accessibility to regulatory agencies, scientists, and even oyster farmers,” said Ali.

Competitive Research Program Funded Projects

The Competitive Grants Program invites personnel from the four universities to submit original research projects that focus on water quality and oyster sustainability in the Gulf of Mexico. The funded projects are as follows:

  • Is Food Supply Adequate for Oyster Larvae in Mississippi Sound? Evaluation of Food Quality and Quantity Through Optical, Biochemical, and Biological Observations and Modeling
    • Xiaodong Zhang (Lead Investigator), USM
  • Satellite-based Virtual Buoy Observation Network as Water Quality Support Tool for Oyster Sustainability in Mississippi Sound
    • Vitor Martins (Lead Investigator), MSU
  • Transport and Fate of Bacterial Communities in Mississippi Coastal Ecosystems
    • Nathan Wisnoski (Lead Investigator), MSU
  • The Bacterial Environment of Mississippi Coastal Systems
    • Colin R. Jackson (Lead Investigator), UM

“Building on the previous MBRACE project which found that oyster larvae require a relatively protein-rich diet to be successful at metamorphosis, the current project investigates the food sources in the Mississippi Sound that are protein rich through optical, biochemical, and biological observations and modeling,” said Zhang. “As PI, I’m interested in utilizing optical observations, which can be deployed quickly over extended time and locations, to map the food sources that sustain oyster larvae settlement success.”

The Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and revived Economies of the Gulf Coast States (RESTORE) Act began in 2012 in response to the Deepwater Horizon Oil spill in 2010. This act provided Gulf Coast states funds to restore and protect its coastlines. With the funds, the Center of Excellence was founded in all Gulf Coast states focusing on the wellbeing of the Gulf of Mexico.

Learn more about  and how it creates a sustainable and livable Gulf Coast.