The Built Aquatic Environment-

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water

-Loren Eiseley-

Aquatic ecosystems can be placed into two discrete categories, native and managed. Native aquatic ecosystems may be influenced by human activities, in fact we’d be hard-pressed to find one that isn’t, but there is no intention to the influence. Managed aquatic ecosystems, on the other hand, are intentionally influenced by human activities. The most intensively influenced of these are the built aquatic ecosystems, aquariums.

Aquaria are amazing places to improve our understanding of the aquatic environment particularly the microbiomes associated with them. Aquarium mangers religiously monitor multiple system parameters and record their values using standardized high-quality methods. These data are archived into accessible datasets and are referred to in trends analyses during every-day operations. Physiochemical parameter values like water temperature, salinity, pH, nitrogen content, select ion concentrations, dissolved oxygen content, total dissolved gas pressure, oxidative reduction potential and more are routine.  And now we can examine these data for correlations with microbial assemblages living in the environments. Beginning in 2005 Shedd Aquarium has been investigating the microbiomes associated with its managed systems with the aim of attaining this improved understanding and directing management decisions that lead to optimal system health.

Over 3000 individual samples have been collected and submitted for DNA extraction, amplification, and sequencing since the inception of the project now recognized as the Aquarium Microbiome Project (AMP). Findings have been reported at multiple scientific conferences of aquatic animal health professionals such as the International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine the Eastern Fish Health Workshop  the Aquatic Animal Life Support System Operators and so on. Multiple manuscripts are currently under review.

All of the physiochemical parameters mentioned are under the control of systems managers. This enables phenomenal capacity to test hypotheses around influencing the microbiomes associated with aquatic environments. Data to date have been generated in association with nine specific studies under the AMP and many more are planned and possible. Shedd Aquarium is home to over 32,000 individual animals of over 1,500 species, living in hundreds of intensively and carefully managed systems. Coupling these resources with the phenomenal capacity of our partners’ sequencing facilities and bioinformatics is opening the doors to unparalleled understanding of aquatic systems and how to better care for them.

These studies have been made possible by the gracious support of our partners

Dr. Angela Kent Associate Professor of Microbial Ecology Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Dr. Jack Gilbert Environmental microbiologist Argonne National Laboratory University of Chicago

Dr. Brent Stephens Environmental Engineer Assistant Professor, Illinois Institute of Technology

Dr. Randy Sacco Microbiologist National Animal Disease Center/ARS/USDA

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Bill Van Bonn

Bill Van Bonn, DVM, is the aquarium’s vice president of animal health at the Shedd Aquarium. Check out his full bio here