Flowering plant

Seagrasses boost ecosystem health by fighting bad bacteria

seagrass
NATURAL CLEANERS Seagrasses, flowering plants that grow in shallow seas, can decrease bacterial contamination in the surrounding water.

BOSTON — For a lawn that helps the environment — and doesn’t need to be mowed — look to the ocean. Meadows of underwater seagrass plants might lower levels of harmful bacteria in nearby ocean waters, researchers reported February 16 during a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That could make the whole ecosystem — from corals to fish to humans — healthier.

Not truly a grass, seagrasses are flowering plants with long, narrow leaves. They grow in shallow ocean water, spreading into vast underwater lawns. Seagrasses are “a marine powerhouse, almost equal to the rainforest. They’re one of the largest stores of carbon in the ocean,” says study coauthor Joleah Lamb, an ecologist at Cornell University. “But they don’t get a lot of attention.”

It’s no secret that seagrasses improve water quality, says James Fourqurean, a biologist at Florida International University in Miami who wasn’t involved in the research, which appears in the Feb. 17 Science. The plants are great at removing excess nitrogen and phosphorus from coastal waters. But now, it seems, they might take away harmful bacteria, too.

A few years ago, Lamb’s colleagues became ill with amoebic dysentery while studying coral reefs in Indonesia, an archipelagic nation that straddles the Indian and Pacific oceans. When a city or village on one of the country’s thousands of islands dumps raw sewage…