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Dr Maggie Reddy

Kelp forests span nearly 4000 km of coastline around southern Africa. “In many respects this African Sea Forest is our very own underwater Amazon,” says Dr Maggie Reddy, and she wants to make sure it doesn’t suffer the same fate as its terrestrial counterpart.

Reddy’s project proposal for the JWO Research Grant is entitled “An innovative approach to addressing climate change impacts and conservation challenges in the African Sea Forest.”

She says that “while analytical techniques have significantly advanced medical research in recent decades, similar methods have not yet been widely applied to environmental studies. My goal is to carry out pioneer research by applying an omics approach to study the African Sea Forest, and use innovative methods to sustainably use and conserve these valuable marine resources.”

Kelp forests contribute substantially to the blue bioeconomy, contributing nearly $500 billion globally, of which an estimated $0.5 million (R5.8 billion) contributes to the South African GDP, annually. Even though kelp forests are critical marine ecosystems, they have globally experienced an average decline over the past five decades, says Reddy.

They “are highly productive ecosystems that offer a diverse range of goods and services, including immense socio-economic benefits to coastal communities. However, like many marine ecosystems, kelp forests face increasing threats from human activities and climate change.”

Reddy says that “along the Southern African coast, a unique geographic advantage exists for studying varying impacts of human related stresses and climate change on kelp forests. In particular, the application of the -omic sciences to study two sister species of Ecklonia in Southern Africa along an ecological gradient, will allow us to understand drivers of diversity in both species and forecast population changes under various climate scenarios. Although limited DNA barcodes exist for Ecklonia species in Southern Africa, a comprehensive genomic survey is yet to be undertaken. Given that kelps are exploited for their metabolites or nutritional content, whole-genome SNP analysis coupled with complementary metabolomic analysis or nutritional profiles can further help delineate meaningful populations.

“Currently, the management of Ecklonia maxima as a bioresource is based on geographic populations, treating all regions as equal despite evident disparities in population size, extent, resilience, and genetic variation. While genetic populations have proven effective in fisheries management for various marine species, integrating metabolic variation into population management strategies could enhance its efficacy in kelps. The integration of genomic and metabolomic data will also be beneficial in guiding kelp restoration projects for E. radiata. Considering that metabolites offer insights into functional responses and adaption, they may aid in identifying biomarkers of stress. These biomarkers could serve as early warnings, facilitating the monitoring of kelp forests in the future.”

Reddy says that “the application of the -omic sciences emerges as a promising tool for understanding and addressing the impacts of climate change and facilitating the management of kelp forests.”

The -omics sciences are an interdisciplinary approach aimed at achieving a comprehensive understanding of biological systems across various molecular levels. It encompasses genomics, transcriptomics, and metabolomics, leveraging high-throughput technology and advanced data integration to elucidate the structure and function of biomolecules in response to various stresses. For example, in the medical field, metabolomics is routinely employed in the detection of cancer and other illnesses. Treatment strategies are then administered based on metabolic profiles or concentrations of particular biomarkers (metabolites). However, while the application of metabolomics in medicine has seen significant progress, its application to other living organisms remains in its infancy. Despite its inherent versatility and potential utility in an environmental context, it has yet to be explored for the conservation and management of marine ecosystems, says Reddy.


Dr Maggie Reddy is an early career marine biologist and lecturer at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. She has extensive experience in marine science across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Ocean. Her broad interest in marine biodiversity and wide international collaboration has fostered her unique multidisciplinary approach to research.