UF Scientist Seeks Super Sea Oats

Cindy Spence

Michael Kane (352) 392-7937

GAINESVILLE–Gulf Coast sea oats are genetically different from sea oats on the Atlantic Coast, a University of Florida researcher has found.

The differences, says Michael Kane, may be the key to preserving Florida’s dune system — and keeping coastal residents safe — in the face of tropical storms and hurricanes.

“Now that we know there are genetic differences, we need to determine what these differences mean, if anything, in terms of the ability of sea oats to survive and stabilize dunes. Eventually, we hope to select and propagate sea oats for the qualities that make for the strongest, best sea oats — the sea oats that can best do the job of stabilizing dunes during storms,” said Kane, a researcher at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Kane started his project after several hurricanes and storms hit Florida in the early ’90s. As demand for dune restoration increased, supplies of naturally grown sea oats dropped. Commercial nurseries who specialize in sea oats have state permission, under contract, to collect seed on dunes, but since the dunes were damaged, sources for seed and seedlings became severely tapped.

Kane thought he could propagate sea oats in a laboratory, but the question then became, which sea oats? Could Atlantic Coast sea oats be used to restore Gulf Coast dunes? Could sea oats from the lower Gulf Coast be transplanted, without harm, to the Panhandle?

“There was some question about whether it would be advisable to transplant sea oats between distant geographic locations, such as using Atlantic Coast sea oats to replenish Gulf Coast dunes damaged by hurricanes,” Kane said. “There was some concern that there might be genetic mismatches among the populations. So we needed, first, to determine whether there were genetic differences within and between populations of sea oats.”

Kane found that not only are there differences between sea oats coast to coast, but also differences between northern Gulf Coast sea oats and lower Gulf Coast sea oats. He theorized that the greater frequency with which storms have damaged Gulf Coast dunes may be part of the reason for the differences. His next step is to determine whether the differences can help him come up with a “super sea oat” in the laboratory.

By obtaining the DNA fingerprints of sea oats, Kane is searching for varieties with specific characteristics that are commercially and ecologically valuable, such as the ability to root quickly and stabilize dunes.

“We’re looking at nature’s diversity to select super sea oats,” Kane said.

A superior sea oat would have the ability to flower, set seed and grow under stressful conditions. It would also develop an extensive root and rhizome systems. These desirable traits increase the likelihood of sea oats surviving storms and enhance their ability to stabilize dunes.

In Kane’s research, funded by Florida Sea Grant College, he will be planting four beach locations with sea oats selected from his genetic studies. On the Atlantic Coast, dunes at Sebastian Inlet and Anastasia Island will be planted. On the Gulf Coast, dunes at St. George Island and Egmont Key will be planted. Each planting will include sea oats from all four sites.

“By growing all of them on all the sites, we hope to evaluate each plant and find out if there are differences in growth patterns. We hope to determine whether the geographic source matters,” Kane said. “Then we’ll select the best plants from each site and determine whether they have valuable characteristics that would allow us to better protect and stabilize the coastline. One of our ultimate goals is to be able to select superior, genetically different plants from around Florida.”

The final step will be cloning the superior plants in a laboratory using micropropagation technology to mass produce super sea oats.

“The ability to select the best sea oats and rapidly produce them is what we’re after,” Kane said. “We’ve developed a cloning technique for sea oats that allows us to take one sea oat with superior characteristics and replicate it, such that all the offspring are genetically identical to the parent plant.

“It’s important that we clone the best sea oats. If we have a plant with desirable characteristics, we want to propagate that plant and take the offspring to various sites to evaluate growth,” Kane said.

Giving the humble sea oat a hand in protecting dunes is important, Kane said, because the coastline is one of the most valuable resources in Florida. Visitors come to enjoy the coastline and, in the last 30 years, residents have increasingly crowded the coastline.

“Dunes are the front line of defense from wind, water, tropical storms and hurricanes. The plants found on the dunes anchor the sand, decrease wind erosion and deflect wave action,” Kane said. “Without the dunes, the damage that would occur during storms and hurricanes, particularly in developed areas, would be catastrophic.

“Protecting the dunes protects people,” Kane said.