School of Science / Centre for Marine Ecosystems Research
Lake Macquarie Environmental Research Grant
Marine water temperatures are increasing globally, with eastern Australian estuaries warming faster than predicted. There is growing evidence that this rapid warming of coastal waters is increasing the abundance and virulence of pathogenic members of the Vibrionaceae, posing a significant health risk to both humans and aquatic organisms. Fish disease, notably outbreaks of emerging pathogens in response to environmental perturbations such as heatwaves, have been recognised in aquaculture settings. Considerably less is known about how rising sea surface temperatures will impact the microbiology of wild fish populations, particularly those within estuarine systems that are more vulnerable to warming. We used a combination of Vibrio-specific quantitative PCR and amplicon sequencing of the 16S rRNA and hsp60 genes to examine seawater and fish (Pelates sexlineatus) gut microbial communities across a quasi-natural experimental system, where thermal pollution from coal-fired power stations creates a temperature gradient of up to 6 °C, compatible with future predicted temperature increases. At the warmest site, fish hindgut microbial communities were in a state of dysbiosis characterised by shifts in beta diversity and a proliferation (71.5% relative abundance) of the potential fish pathogen Photobacterium damselae subsp. damselae. Comparable patterns were not identified in the surrounding seawater, indicating opportunistic proliferation within estuarine fish guts under thermal stress. A subsequent evaluation of predicted future warming-related risk due to pathogenic Vibrionaceae in temperate estuarine fish demonstrated that warming is likely to drive opportunistic pathogen increases in the upper latitudinal range of this estuarine fish, potentially impacting adaptations to future warming. These findings represent a breakthrough in our understanding of the dynamics of emerging pathogens in populations of wild aquatic organisms within environments likely to experience rapid warming under future climate change.
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