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Title: Uptake and mobilisation of metals associated with estuarine intertidal sediment by microphytobenthic diatoms
Author: Becker, Amani Eve
ISNI:       0000 0004 6349 6082
Awarding Body: University of Stirling
Current Institution: University of Stirling
Date of Award: 2017
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Microphytobenthos (MPB), a mixed community of microscopic, photosynthetic organisms, algae and cyanobacteria, inhabiting the top few millimetres of bottom sediment, is a key component of intertidal mudflats. It accounts for a significant proportion of estuarine primary production, forms the base of the food chain and influences sediment distribution and resuspension (through production of extracellular polymeric substances (EPS)). Diatoms dominate the microphytobenthos community in the mid-latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. Estuarine sediments, are a sink for metal contaminants derived from fluvial, marine and atmospheric sources. Whilst metal releases to estuaries have declined in recent years due to increased regulation and declining industrial activity, metals previously discharged and which are now locked up in saltmarsh sediments remain a concern. For example, there are indications that saltmarshes are already being eroded, due to climate change related sea level rise, in some locations. This erosion may result in the redistribution of historically contaminated sediment to locations, such as the mudflats, where it is more available to biota, such as the MPB. In addition to causing redistribution, climate change effects, such as increasing temperatures and storminess, may also alter the bioavailability of metals to MPB. Increased concentrations of metals within the MPB could potentially increase their transfer to higher organisms through the food chain with potential impacts for biota. Whilst planktonic algae have been well studied with respect to metal uptake from the water column, there has been little research involving MPB and uptake of metals from sediment. The extent to which contaminant uptake by microphytobenthic algae occurs and under what conditions is therefore poorly understood. The research presented uses laboratory, mesocosm and field studies, to gain an understanding of processes governing metal bioavailability and mechanisms for uptake from sediment to the diatoms of the MPB under the complex and variable conditions of intertidal mudflats. A laboratory study using a single diatom species Cylindrotheca closterium found that uptake of cadmium (Cd) varied with sediment properties revealing the importance of sediment particle size and organic matter content in metal bioavailability to diatoms. Additionally, this study showed that the presence of diatoms altered Cd partitioning between sediment, overlying and pore water. Specifically there was an increase in Cd in the overlying and pore water when diatoms were present, indicating that diatoms mobilise metals from the sediment to the water column potentially increasing metal bioavailability to other biota. A study was conducted using an intertidal mesocosm to increase the realism of the study system and examine uptake to a natural MPB community. Diatoms were found to have higher concentrations of all the metals analysed (except tin) than other types of algae (filamentous and sheet macroalgae), confirming their importance as a study organism with respect to metal uptake and potential mobilisation through the food chain. Sediment disturbance was shown to increase metal uptake (iron, aluminium, vanadium and lead) from the sediment to algae. This is of concern due to predicted increases in storminess which are likely to increase sediment disturbance, with the likelihood that uptake of metals to diatoms will increase in the future. However, there were also indications of an antagonistic effect of temperature on disturbance, whilst disturbance increased bioavailability and uptake, increasing temperatures reduced uptake of some metals. This highlights the importance of considering the effects of multiple stressors in complex systems. Field studies showed that concentrations of some metals were related to their position on the mudflat whilst others were related to sampling date, indicating that there may be seasonal controls, such as to the presence of greater diatom biomass in spring and autumn, on metal uptake from the sediment. The research conducted has increased understanding of metal uptake to microphytobenthic diatoms from sediment and the influence they have in transferring metals from sediment to water, however the research also raises a number of new questions. For example, there appeared to be a link between sediment organic matter content and bioavailability of metals to diatoms, although the relative contribution of the diatoms, other algae, cyanobacteria and EPS to the sediment organic matter warrants further investigation. Furthermore, it has shown that the use of laboratory and mesocosm studies for this type of research can produce similar outcomes to those observed in the field but under more controlled and easily manipulated conditions, although field studies will continue to be vital in improving understanding of metals availability and transfer.
Supervisor: Copplestone, David ; Tyler, Andrew N. ; Smith, Nick T. Sponsor: EPSRC ; University of Stirling
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Diatoms ; Cylindrotheca closterium ; intertidal sediment ; cadmium ; Microphytobenthos ; mesocosm ; metals ; temperature ; disturbance ; Ribble Estuary ; ARCoES ; Algae--Effect of metals on ; Trace metals in water ; Metals--Environmental aspects