By testing if genetics plays a part in corals’ survival in extreme environments, Marine Lab scientists hope to slow down the decline of coral reefs
It was in 2013 that Guam experienced one of the worst coral bleaching events in the island’s recorded history—not only widespread throughout the reefs but also down to depths that affected multiple species, not just a few.
Scientists at the University of Guam Marine Laboratory, who had predicted the extent of the event and began extensive monitoring post-bleaching, took notice of a strange occurrence amongst the corals.
“There were individuals of the same species sitting next to each other that were and were not bleached,” said Dr. Jason Biggs, assistant professor of Marine Biology. “So we said there had to be a genetic part to this. It’s got to be in the genes, and if that’s true, then maybe we can slow down the decline of coral reefs.”
This idea became the basis upon which the grant for the EPSCoR funding was written.
In August, UOG announced a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation through its Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program for coastal ecosystems research. The funding is for five years and represents one of the single largest grants awarded in UOG history.
With the funding, a group of faculty and students plan to test two hypotheses—that the genetic structures of coral are all the same, and they survive by chance and that environmental stressors don’t exert selection pressure.
These hypotheses are linked to four main goals set to track the progress of the research.
These goals include mapping the genetic landscape of two coral species— Acropora surculosa, a more susceptible coral, and Porites rus, a less susceptible coral—to possibly identify special genotypes or subspecies that can help predict climate variability.
Scientists also set out to create a physical and cyber biorepository that stores information on specimens collected during research, to characterize the surrounding environment, and to establish a Guam Ecosystems Collaboratorium.
“If we do all of this and find that certain corals have certain genes turned on, we will have some hints toward a genetic aspect, which could be an adaptation to these extreme environments” Biggs said. “Then we can start working from there to propagate these and spread them around in the reefs or start looking into the physiological and genetic mechanisms that are working and how that gene makes the coral survive in that environment.”
To test these hypotheses, Marine Lab scientists plan to use cutting edge equipment and infrastructure—like a cryogenic storage facility and an upgrade to fiber optics for improved cyber connectivity—funded through the EPSCoR grant on six specific locations around the island.
Specimens and data will be collected in Pago Bay, Fouha Bay, Apra Harbor, Achang Bay, around Pati Point, and Tumon Bay. The diversity in the six locations will help scientists collect data that truly reflects the marine landscape of the entire island.
Dr. Laura Biggs, a principal investigator on the EPSCoR project, said there are two avenues through which students can participate in the research and data collection for the EPSCoR project.
Graduate students can apply for a graduate research assistantship, where they will develop a thesis that aligns with the EPSCoR goals and efforts and conduct research alongside the scientists of the Marine Lab. Each graduate student could received a tuition waiver for up to 21 credits per semester and earn up to $18,000 a year for the work they do. Once they finish, there is a 1:1 work ratio, so the students trained on Guam can give back to the island community, she said.
For undergraduate students, they can apply for summer research experiences that pays up to $12,000 for helping to research and collect data.
Jason Biggs said it’s UOG’s responsibility to do the research that affects not just our island but region and, in turn, inform the public on how to solve future problems.
“Us being the only four-year accredited university in the Western Pacific, we have a duty to arm our people with the knowledge and capability to solve these problems ourselves,” he said. “For the Marianas, we are an ocean people. Without the coral reefs, how can you be a culture of the ocean when there’s nothing in the ocean to sustain you? Ultimately, we will be defined by what we have.”