URI professor leading U.S., Israeli probe into adaptability of coral reefs

KINGSTON, R.I. – September 6, 2018 — University of Rhode Island researcher Hollie Putnam is leading a collaborative  $1.1 million, three-year investigation into how coral and other organisms dependent on coral reefs adapt and acclimate to environmental stress caused in large part by climate change.

Putnam, an assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, is working with Debashish Bhattacharya at Rutgers University and Arye Harel at the Agricultural Research Organization Volcani Center in Israel to examine Hawaiian corals. The grant is funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Israeli Binational Science Foundation.

“Our research is focused on coral reefs’ and their holobionts’ responses to stress in the environment,” Putnam said.

Pocillopora acuta
Pocillopora acuta with active polyps. Photo by Madeleine Sherman.

The word holobiont describes the symbiotic relationships between such organisms as bacteria, algae and other animals and plants living in or on a coral. “Our goal is to understand how the organisms work together,” Putnam said. “We will subject different coral species to various stress tests to see how they react to increased ocean temperatures and the acidification that accompanies warming.”

The work, which began in June, is  located at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology in Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii, and thus far involves three URI students, undergraduate Madeleine Sherman, a marine biology major, and graduate students Emma Strand and Kevin Wong, new doctoral students in biological and environmental sciences in URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences.

Montipora capitata
Montipora capitata fragments put back on the reef to acclimate after being cut. Photo by Emma Strand.

“Between building our lab setup from various parts, to learning how to sample corals, I have been able to apply what I have learned so far as an undergraduate to real research with Dr. Putnam,” Sherman said.

She said Putnam’s research is crucial considering the state of climate change and coral’s ability to adapt.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to work on such an important project with an incredibly inspiring mentor,” explained the Honolulu, Hawaii resident.

“My goal has always been to make an impact on ocean conservation, education, and awareness, and being able to work under Dr. Putnam is helping me fulfill this. I am hoping once the publications are available, people become more aware of what is going on beneath the surface, and become mindful of themselves as well as the choices that they make that have an impact on the environment, especially the ocean,” Sherman said.

The team will examine coral sensitive to environmental changes and those that are resistant to see the stress response toolkit corals use  to survive.

“Acclimatization could change the makeup of the holobiont community and the response coral as well, and we will be able to detect and measure those changes,” Putnam said. “At the holobiont level, we may see new organisms as a result of their response to climate change, and this could have a cascading effect on the coral.”

One of Putnam’s research colleagues, Debashish Bhattacharya, distinguished professor in Rutgers’ Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology and Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources, will play a critical role in the study as he examines the big data and bioinformatics from the study.

“Working with Hollie and Arye, we will construct a sophisticated model of the genetic toolkit that corals use to respond to abiotic stress, mimicking conditions that are expected in the coming years due to warming, acidifying oceans,” Bhattacharya said.

The Israeli member of the team is Arye (Arik) Harel, a quantitative biologist at the Volcani Center who focuses on biotic stress research and will apply sophisticated network analysis to look at the interactions of the holobiont partners.

Such work is important, Putnam said, because reefs around the world are threatened by warming, acidification, and other human caused stressors. With an estimated value in the billions of dollars and incalculable cultural and biodiversity impact, it is critical we understand and protect these amazing coral reef systems.