Between February and March last year, an algae bloom wiped out over 500 tonnes of fish from more than 70 farms here.
The National Research Foundation (NRF) has since awarded a grant to research that will identify the kind of viruses found in Singapore waters, and the ones capable of destroying algae or phytoplankton that kills fish.
"Singapore is an island nation surrounded by the sea and a good part of our future will depend on it in one way or another," said Professor Peter Ng, programme director of the Marine Science Research and Development Programme.
"It is imperative to have a strong marine science anchor to ensure that we are ready for the many challenges to come," added Prof Ng, who is also head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.
The project is among seven to receive funding from NRF under the new Marine Science Research and Development Programme.
What the 7 projects will look at
•Adaptation and resilience of coral reefs to environmental changes in Singapore
•Understanding the viral composition of algal blooms in Singapore coastal waters
•Studying the effects of sediment transport and nutrient cycling (movement of sediments and nutrients) on Singapore's coral reefs
•Ecologically engineering Singapore's seawalls to enhance biodiversity.
•Using bioinformatics and innovative chemical technologies to more efficiently study the biomolecules produced by marine microorganisms.
•Rearing marine organisms for research use. This study will also look at the effect that microplastics (particles with diameter less than 1mm) have on the life cycle of native species.
•A data management platform to include data from individual programmes under the Marine Science Research and Development Programme. It will be the first centralised repository of publicly available environmental information in Singapore.
Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is also NRF chairman, made the announcement yesterday during the official opening of the St John's Island National Marine Laboratory, a marine science facility open to all marine science researchers in Singapore.
Researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the National Institute of Education have in all been awarded $13 million to carry out their research projects. The seven projects have gone through rigorous screening by local and international scientists, and are an "excellent kick-off" for the programme, said Prof Ng.
Other projects will look at the effects of sediment movement on coral reefs as well as how seawalls can be ecologically engineered to enhance biodiversity. (See sidebar.)
"As a low-lying island, global warming and the rise in sea levels and temperatures can pose huge challenges to our marine ecosystems," said Mr Teo, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security, yesterday.
Associate Professor Federico Lauro, associate chairman of NTU's Asian School of the Environment, leads the project to study algae blooms and viruses.
He said monthly water samples will be collected from five sites before their DNA is sequenced.
The high-end sequencing technology used in the study can provide real-time data because of its small size and help to identify algae species in as quickly as four hours.
"We hope that by using third-generation DNA sequencing technology, we'll find out markers that give us early detection of the onset of algae blooms so we will be able to advise the fish farmers earlier than it is possible today," said Prof Lauro.
Another project, led by Assistant Professor Huang Danwei from NUS' Department of Biological Sciences, aims to find out how coral reefs in Singapore waters have managed to survive despite being located in one of the most urbanised marine environments in the world.
There are over 200 species of corals on Singapore's reefs and about 200 species of fish documented on reefs here.
"Corals have evolved over hundreds of millions of years and have adapted to many types of environments," said Prof Huang. "In Singapore, the fact that there are corals thriving in our waters suggests that these species have genetic adaptations that make them resilient to stressors such as sediments."
His study will also involve tracking the diversity and performance of corals in the past, and correlating them with environmental factors so that his team can predict how well reefs can survive with changing climate patterns in future.
"Corals respond very quickly to water quality, temperature and a myriad of environmental parameters, so they will be excellent real- time biological indicators of our marine environment," said Prof Huang.