Biology professor Laura Mydlarz, along with graduate students Bradford Dimos and Nicholas MacKnight, hope to predict the spread of a new disease capable of causing rapid damage to coral reefs.
Stony coral tissue loss disease was observed in the Caribbean Sea earlier this year. Florida reefs have experienced the same disease since 2014.
This disease is unique because of its large range, rapid progression, mortality rate and the number of species it affects, according to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s website. It is thought to be spread by bacteria and transmitted to other corals via direct contact.
“It is a disease that is affecting coral we once thought to have a higher immune tolerance,” MacKnight said in an email.
MacKnight said this is happening during an atypical time of year, and observations suggest it may spread further south against the gulf stream to other parts of the Caribbean.
Dimos said in an email the project, which involves five other institutions, is focused on determining which coral species get the disease, what causes it and how they fight against it.
The research project is funded by a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
“If we can use this project to identify what is causing these diseases and how to prevent them in the future, then we can work to mitigate the loss of coral reefs and preserve these amazing ecosystems,” Dimos said.
Mydlarz said the first step in their research process is getting the samples — which are currently in a freezer in St. Thomas at the University of the Virgin Islands — to the U.S.
“They have to be shipped frozen,” she said. “That’s a bit of a challenge when you’re shipping in the Caribbean.”
After the samples are collected, Dimos said their lab contributes by performing gene sequencing analysis. Gene sequencing analysis is a process that extracts RNA, which is how cells translate their genes into action. The RNA is then taken from corals and put into a gene sequencer. This allows them to understand how corals respond to and fight the disease.
After analyzing the RNA, Mydlarz said it could take eight months before results are known.
“Research isn’t instantaneous,” Mydlarz said. “We would love for our data to help shed light on the problem of coral disease as well as allow reef management agencies in the Virgin Islands and in other areas of the Caribbean to take action and figure out how to stop it.”
Once results are known, the whole team will come to a conclusion based on each of their shared results, publish papers about the results in peer-reviewed journals and share their findings with the National Science Foundation.