Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research
PhD student
Universiteit van Amsterdam
Prof. dr. Corina Brussaard

MSc. Lisa Schellenberg

PhD student

Microbial and chemical players – from land to coral reefs

In short, my PhD project investigates the biological and chemical changes in coral reef ecosystems to understand how land-derived and waterborne substances affect coral reefs in the Dutch Caribbean.

Supervisors: Prof. Dr. Corina Brussaard and Dr. Andi Haas

Coral reefs provide economic, social, and cultural benefits

Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse and productive ecosystems on earth, providing us humans with various opportunities in tourism, recreation, employment, fisheries production, shoreline protection, as well as cultural heritage. Up to 36% of the total gross domestic product across the six islands of the Dutch Caribbean is directly connected to coral reefs. However, Caribbean communities are in risk of losing the benefits coral reefs provide, due to declining coral reef health, induced by local and global stressors (especially pollution, fertilizer, run-off, coastal development, overfishing, and global change).

Coral reefs and human activities

Coral reefs are heavily affected by human activities. In the Caribbean, coastal development, urbanization, and daily life cause unnaturally high fluxes of pollutants and potential pollutants into the sea. These inputs include pharmaceuticals, oil, metals, plastics, trash, sediments, nutrients (fertilizers), pesticides, and microbes (including human pathogens). Terrestrial geology, hydrology, groundwater transport, water run-off, and vegetation affect the initial arrival of these inputs. Furthermore, ocean physics, hydrodynamics, ocean chemistry, and biological activity influence the flows, forms, and residence times of land inputs. These processes affect coral reef ecosystem functioning and health, and influence their growth and decline.

Chemical and microbial agents through the watershed.

Water quality is often cited as a key driver of coral reef health, yet this topic is rarely studied (in detail) in the Dutch Caribbean. In coastal waters, the origin, abundance, and distribution of pollutants and other compounds can positively or negatively affect the survival of coral reef communities. These substances are mainly introduced to the ocean from a terrestrial source (e.g., groundwater and surface discharge and coastal development).

My PhD project focuses specifically on the composition of chemical and microbial agent that flow through the watershed. Using state-of-the-art techniques, she aims to (i) identify the key differences in microbial and chemical players between reef systems, (ii) characterize the microbial community and trace ecologically-relevant substances from land to ocean, (iii) identify the occurrence of antibiotic resistance bacteria in the coastal water, and (iv) examine the effects of substances on organisms and communities on the reef.

SEALINK - Linking terrestrial pollutants and inputs to nearshore coral reef growth to identify novel conservation options for the Dutch Caribbean

My PhD project is part of the  interdisciplinary SEALINK project that aims to elucidate how natural processes and human influences along the land-sea continuum impact coral reef communities. The SEALINK program will establish an integrative, transdisciplinary research program merging geology, hydrology, ecology, and sociology. SEALINK brings together a diverse consortium of scientists to create a new tradition of integrative, transdisciplinary science in the Dutch and wider Caribbean. The program will leverage the remarkable scientific value that exists across the six islands of the Dutch Caribbean due to their existing differences in geology, coastal morphology, freshwater abundance, erosion, coastal development, and sewage infrastructure. By bridging multiple fields of research, SEALINK will reveal how natural processes and human influences along the land-sea continuum interactively shape the future of coral reef communities, and how this in turn affects the ability of coral reef systems to provide valuable benefits back to the human communities that live, work, and play just steps away.


Want to know more about the SEALINK project?

Linked blogs

Tuesday 09 January 2024
Between the 4th and 23rd of January, a team of scientists are on board the RV Pelagia to collect a second set of data and samples for the SEALINK project. This is a large, interdisciplinary project running from 2021 to 2025 in which Dutch and…
Wednesday 13 April 2022
Sealink expedition 2022
From 7-18 April scientists of NIOZ on board the RV Pelagia collect data and samples in the Sealink project. In the interdisciplinary Sealink project, Dutch and Caribbean scientists are investigating how water quality affects coral reef health along…