March 29, 2023

March 2023 | By Nicole Foster and Simon Brandl | Photos by Jordan Casey

Dr. Nicole Foster is a MarineGEO Postdoc. She is working with Dr. Simon Brandl on the BEACON project. Dr. Simon Brandl is an assistant professor in the Department of Marine Science at The University of Texas at Austin. He serves as one of the co-directors of the Gulf Coast, Texas MarineGEO Observatory.  

To tap the power and creativity of our international network, MarineGEO supports finite, comparative network-wide research experiments proposed by partners around the network. In 2022 MarineGEO launched the BEACON (Biodiversity and Energy Availability across a Coastal Ocean Network) project. BEACON seeks to understand how productivity is related to animal biodiversity—a key question in the modern ocean awash in productivity-boosting nutrients produced by humanity. The project targets MarineGEO sites around the world using environmental DNA and biogeochemical analyses of water samples. 


Coral at Papua New GuineaA vibrant biodiverse coral reef in Conflict Islands, Papua New Guinea.

Our oceans are full of life. The countless species occurring beneath the waves inhabit many environments, from seagrass beds, coral reefs, and mangroves to sandy sediments and the deep ocean. Not all environments are created equal though, with some harbouring greater diversity than others. Explaining the resulting diversity gradients has occupied ecologists for decades. Among the many hypotheses that have been developed is the species-energy hypothesis, which proposes that the more available energy a system has, the more species can be supported and co-exist without having to compete strongly. Although it appears intuitive, the species-energy relationship is hard to disentangle in practice, and exhibits different trends depending on the spatial scale of the study (i.e., whether local or regional). Furthermore, few attempts have been made to test the species-energy relationship in marine rather than terrestrial ecosystems.  

BEACON will leverage the global reach of MarineGEO to test the species-energy relationship in marine systems worldwide, encompassing both local and regional trends. Understanding patterns of biodiversity in the marine environment is a central goal of MarineGEO, and BEACON provides unique opportunities to build understanding of marine diversity that can then be applied to managing the ocean’s changing ecosystems.  

To examine how global biodiversity and productivity are related in coastal marine communities, we will employ two powerful approaches. The first is environmental DNA, which is an emerging approach that uses traces of animal DNA in water to detect which species are or were present. It is useful in detecting invasive species, reconstructing past biodiversity, and tracking changes in biodiversity. It builds on the premise that DNA shed by organisms acts as a fingerprint, allowing us to trace it back to the original owner. By collecting water samples, extracting the DNA, and amplifying regions of DNA specific to animals, we will recover a snapshot of biodiversity at specific sampling sites.