Rutgers student embarks on project to save Delaware oysters
Three years ago, 85 percent of wild oysters in the global ecosystems had been lost due to overfishing, causing Columbia University’s Earth Institute to deem them “functionally extinct.”
The extinction of oysters is alarming for both the ecosystem and the economy, said Lauren Huey, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences senior. Oysters are both crucial ecosystem engineers in the food chain and an important source of harvest for the fishing industry.
Huey has been studying oyster tissue for another reason: They are being killed off in large numbers by a disease.
The disease is called Perkinsus marinus, commonly nicknamed “dermo.” It is a pathogen that infects an oyster’s tissues, spreads throughout its body and often becomes fatal.
Oysters are filter feeders, taking in many of the particles that make waters look dirty, which is extremely vital to organisms that need light, Huey said.
Huey’s project involves studying another filter feeder, the tunicate, which was also contracting the disease.
She suspected the tunicate was absorbing some of the same fatal particles as the oysters, inadvertently lowering the disease rate among oysters.
Huey had one problem with the study: While oysters are well-studied and easy to keep in captivity, no one has ever tried to culture tunicates. The research team needed to keep them alive in the lab and knew very little about the conditions of the tunicate’s natural habitat.
“We had to basically start from scratch and learn how to take care of them in a closed system,” Huey said. “We went out and took them back to the lab and had a lot of problems trying to figure out what we should be feeding them.”
The tunicates also did not seem to like any water that came from a truck, and Huey guessed it was likely due to certain metal contaminants in the water. She also learned they do not like light, so she kept them covered.
The eventual goal is to change the way marine ecosystems are viewed, specifically with sponges seen as threats to oysters, Huey said.
“In these areas, sponges are thought of as a nuisance,” she said. “They’re taking up the space, but that competition could also be a good thing as far as disease goes.”
The sponges could actually be beneficial because they are also filter feeders that act as a barrier from the disease.
“We tend to apply what we know about terrestrial systems to marine systems, and that’s not always true,” she said.
Huey, who is studying marine science, said she had always been interested in marine science, especially as a young child.
“I was kind of raised going to aquariums, going to the beach and experiencing marine life in a lot of different ways,” she said. “I grew up thinking I would be a marine biologist.”
After working at a veterinarian’s office, Huey came to Rutgers with the intention of pursuing animal science but eventually switched back to her initial lifelong passion.
David Bushek, director of the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory at Rutgers where Huey worked last summer, said the Huey’s project is part of a grant sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
“Lauren joined our efforts to understand disease dynamics of marine invertebrates this summer where we are using the oysters in Delaware Bay as a model system,” he said via email. “We work with graduate students and undergraduates.”
Beth Ravit, founder and director of the Rutgers Environmental Research Clinic, has been working with the NY/NJ Baykeeper to reintroduce the previously extinct oyster population to the Hudson Raritan Estuary.
She said Huey is the third or fourth student at Rutgers who has been working on the project for the Delaware Bay, and Huey is currently examining oyster tissues.
“We think that the waters may now be able to support oysters, and if we can get the oysters to reestablish, they improve the water equality even more,” Ravit said.