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CAREER: Parasites, Sea Level Rise, and Ecosystem Dynamics: Investigating the Pattern and Process of Increasing Trematode Prevalence During Transgression


The PI has shown that the occurrence of parasitic flatworms infesting clams and their relatives in coastal environments increased significantly during conditions of sea level rise. These clams are often economically important sources of food or play vital roles in food webs important to humans. This pattern has been noted in modern and fossil shells from estuaries and shore environments on two continents, but has not yet been demonstrated across these environments in a single region. More importantly, the environmental and/or biological factors driving the increasing severity of parasitism remain unknown. This project will test the general applicability of the pattern, use a variety of techniques to determine why parasites flourished during sea level rise, and will provide a long term perspective for efforts to determine how parasitic flatworms and their hosts will likely respond to environmental change. As such, this work will be of broad interest in paleobiology, geology, ecology, parasitology, epidemiology, and medicine. The education plan for this CAREER proposal is uniquely integrated with the research by taking advantage of the geological setting and cultural landmarks at the University of Missouri (MU) to expand the public understanding of Earth systems processes and history through the development of a novel curriculum called The Geology of the Columns.<br/><br/>Attempts to predict how pathogens will respond to environmental change in the 21st Century often lack a perspective of how ecosystems have responded to similar change over geologic time. By applying a variety of geological, paleontological, ecological, and geochemical techniques to the recent fossil record, this transformative project will investigate the pattern and process of how parasites, as key and often overlooked components of seafloor ecosystems, and their communities have responded during Holocene and Pleistocene sea level cycles. A variety of factors will be examined, such as salinity, temperature, host availability and community structure. In parallel, the PI is developing a curriculum called Geology of the Columns to improve education about the basic principles of deep time and Earth systems processes, key themes in the research of this award. This curriculum will lead to a new course reaching ~600 general education undergraduate students and a standards-oriented professional development workshop and online course for middle and high school science teachers in Missouri and beyond. The PI and colleagues at the Universitá di Bologna (Italy) will provide mentored international research experiences for graduate and undergraduate students (REU).

Middleton, John
University of Missouri - Columbia
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