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Science publishes salt marsh study conducted by CCU and USC scientists

February 7, 2003

The results of a study conducted by Coastal Carolina University professor Eric Koepfler and three University of South Carolina scientists offering new informaton about how coastal ecosystems work has been published in the distinguished weekly journal Science.

The article, "Phosphorous limitation of coastal ecosystem processes," presents information that counters generally accepted views about the relationship between plants and other organisms in wetland environments. Based on research conducted in a pristine salt marsh at North Inlet, near Georgetown, S.C., the article reports that plants respond differently to specific nutrients (such as phosphorous and nitrogen) than other organisms in the same environment.

The scientists found that the growth of saltmarsh cordgrass (Spartina) is enhanced by the addition of nitrogen while bacterial community growth in the soil is enhanced by the addition of phosphorous.

"Our findings seem to refute the traditional belief that nutrient limitation of the plant also controls the responses of other organisms in wetland environments," says Koepfler, an associate professor of marine science at Coastal.

The study was part of a Ph.D. research project undertaken by Pallaoor Sundareshwar, who is now doing post-doctorate work at Duke University. Also involved were Jim Morris, professor of biological sciences and marine science at USC, and Brandon Fornwalt, a recent USC graduate. The project utilized the resources of USC's Baruch Marine Laboratory on the Hobcaw Barony property near Georgetown.

According to Koepfler, the findings in the article have significant ramifications in terms of our understanding of nutrient cycling in salt marshes, the effect of nutrient pollution in salt marshes, and methods to help determine the best approach to wetland restoration.

"There are not many pristine salt marshes left, so we need to find out as much as we can about them now in order to understand how coastal ecosystems really work, and how they respond to nutrient pollution," says Koepfler.

The article appears in the Jan. 24 issue of Science, a highly esteemed journal published weekly by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).