The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) off the coast of Queensland, Australia, has suffered record-breaking, back-to-back coral bleaching events in the summers of 2015 and 2016. This has led the media to advertise the “death of the Great Barrier Reef.” Massive damage has occurred, and large areas of the GBR have been lost, however, there are still areas that are surviving. These areas provide hope for the GBR and highlight the need for strong measures to protect these precious reefs. Coral reef preservation is essential for both environmental and social reasons, as millions of families globally rely on reefs’ resources for income. While studying abroad at James Cook University, Haley had the opportunity to visit the iconic GBR.
Ben is thrilled to be jumping into his thesis project this first semester. His project is examining the gene expression between the healthy and diseased genotypes of Acropora palmata to identify disease resistant coral colonies. Acropora palmata, or Elkhorn coral are an essential species of coral in the Caribbean that create habitat for other marine organisms. Unfortunately, a vast percentage of Elkhorn coral has been decimated in recent decades due to cumulative human impacts. They are critically endangered and protected under the Endangered Species Act. This research will lead to discoveries about Elkhorn’s capacity for disease resistance and will highlight other important factors such as how well they tolerance heat, and how disease affects their reproduction. The ultimate goal of this project is to provide information for coral reef restoration projects and assist management. By integrating disease resistant, highly fertile, and heat resistant corals, the fittest version of Acropora palmata can be established on reefs to conserve coral reef ecosystems throughout Florida and the Caribbean.
While Mike was in Taiwan, he studied a unique phenomenon that occurs at Outlet Reef in Taiwan. Outlet Reef is a site within Nanwan Bay that experiences cold, deepwater upwelling during spring tidal cycles. However, the reef is also within close proximity to the Maanshan Nuclear Power Plant cooling canal outflow, so temperatures in the top five meters of the water column often exceed 32 C or 89.6 F. This highly variable temperature environment is hypothesized to select for corals with adaptations to regulate their microbial partners using changes in innate immunity activation, and may clarify how corals may respond to climate change. By understanding how these corals have adapted to these harsh temperature fluctuations, we may be able to discover ways to help with coral survival and limit bleaching events.
One of Madison’s ongoing projects in the lab is to maintain the coral tanks. In their natural habitat, corals can be sensitive organisms. They thrive in very specific conditions when it comes to temperature, salinity, pH, and nutrient exposure. To properly raise corals, Madison must limit the amount of algae growing in the tanks, ensure that the salinity and temperature stays constant, and feed the corals consistently. Algae can be harmful to corals in large amounts; to ensure coral health, sea urchins are placed in the tanks to eat the algae along with weekly tank and coral scrubbings to reduce algal coverage. To document the coral growth and progress, Madison has been photographing the corals under a microscope each week. These coral fragments were collected earlier in the summer, and have been growing ever since!
Mike has been working diligently in Taiwan with the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium! They opened their doors in 1990 and boast the longest underwater tunnel in Asia, as well as numerous aquariums showcasing Taiwan’s freshwater and marine biodiversity. Thousands of visitors arrive at the NMMBA each day and marvel at exhibits ranging from a massive sunlit reef aquarium, to intertidal mangrove flats, to an open ocean system housing eagle rays, leopard whiprays, hammerhead sharks and bowhead guitarfish. Adjacent to the public aquarium are animal husbandry and research buildings. The molecular lab is staffed with faculty from National Dong Hwa University and other Taiwanese institutions. Researchers here are working on a diverse array of projects ranging from marine biomedicine to ornamental aquaculture with numerous labs focused on understanding the effects of climate change on Taiwan’s coral reefs.
Meet our newest lab member—MS student Ben Young! He received his undergraduate degree in Zoology and Geosciences at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. “My Marine Biology units, paired with field trips and travels to the Great Barrier Reef really cemented that I wanted to work with coral in my academic future. An internship at Mote Marine Laboratories in the Florida Keys really impacted me, as it showed first-hand the uphill struggle that is ahead with Anthozoa and anthropogenic climate change. While restoration is key, there is a whole suite of other areas which need to be fully understood so to allow restoration efforts to be undertaken as efficiently as possible.”
This week’s spotlight is Jess Daly. Jess is a senior research intern, and her current project is in collaboration with the Invertebrate Museum at RSMAS. Along with our lab technician, Kevin Rodriguez, Jess has been working to sequence the DNA in various samples from the museum, including corals, gastropods, and molluscs. Even though these samples are decades old, some of the tissues have been well preserved enough that through a technique known as PCR, the DNA sequences of the species can be determined.
This week, meet Haley Plaas! Haley is currently spending her Fall semester abroad at James Cook University in Australia. Haley helps with animal husbandry in the lab, and also organizes the lab’s social media accounts/ outreach efforts. “Public outreach and conservation education is such an important aspect of marine research. It is important that there is good communication between scientists and the public so we can all work together to achieve conservation and preservation of the ocean’s struggling ecosystems.” –Haley
Our spotlight of the week is James Nowotny. James is a Junior research intern studying the innate immunity in cnidarians and the mechanisms by which they respond to stimuli. His research interest utilizes microbiology techniques to learn more about the processes behind observed responses in Anthozoans (corals and anemones). He is currently working to establish a long term primary cell culture of Nematostella vectensis in order to create a controlled sample of cnidarian cells that can be easily observed and manipulated. After culturing the cells of these anemones, they can be treated with a variety of chemicals and stressors to learn the precise cellular mechanisms that act as responses. It is important to understand how the immune system of cnidarians react to environmental stress, so scientists can better combat the severe loss of coral reefs around the world.
Meet Madison Emery and Bianca Noguera! These ladies work in our lab as animal husbandry assistants. Madison and Bianca work every day to ensure that the sea anemones and corals are well taken care of, fed, and kept in clean living environments. For their most recent project, they have been keeping the sea anemones, Nematostella vectensis at 16°C and feeding them hearty amounts of mussels and Artemia to induce spawning.