URI scientist awarded $1.7 million grant to study how corals grow and function

Interdisciplinary project includes researchers from four other universities

KINGSTON, R.I. – December 10, 2019 – University of Rhode Island coral biologist Hollie Putnam is teaming with experts in computer science, nanotoxicology, structural engineering and systems biology to study the intricacies of how corals grow and function in an effort to find new ways to help coral reef systems survive the damage being caused to them by the changing climate and other environmental stressors.

The research team – which includes Judith Klein-Seetharaman at the Colorado School of Mines, Lenore Cowen at Tufts University, Jinkyu Yang at the University of Washington and Nastassja Lewinski at Virginia Commonwealth University – has been awarded a two-year $1.7 million grant by the National Science Foundation to decipher the reasons why certain environmental conditions damage corals and to find ways to repair them.

“The complexity of corals makes conserving and restoring reefs very challenging,” said Putnam, URI assistant professor of biological sciences, who studies coral symbiosis and physiology. “Corals are made up of many different organisms, including the animal host and the algae, bacteria, viruses and fungi that co-exist with it. They’re more like cities than individual animals, as they provide factories, housing, restaurants, nurseries and more for an entire ecosystem. Everything found on a reef is there because corals build the reef structure.”

The project will focus on three key coral capabilities: they create calcium carbonate skeletons that provide three-dimensional structures in which diverse sea life can live; they can heal damage and regenerate their tissues; and they live in symbiosis with other organisms. The ultimate aim of the study is to understand these processes well enough to control them in the lab.

“We’re digging into these three areas to understand coral biology better and looking at all the data to see who the key players are,” Putnam said. “And we’ll be building a model system of coral – a synthetic coral – to test and understand how corals work.”

According to Putnam, a massive amount of data is now available about corals, fisheries, oceanography, climate, coral bleaching, molecular biology and genomics that will be synthesized by the researchers in new ways to address the challenges facing corals.

“We’re at a tipping point,” she said. “We have data that will lead us to a better understanding of the coral ecosystem, but we need to harness these data in a different way. And we’re at a time of urgency because of the state that our corals are in.”

The scientists will analyze the available data to identify the critical molecules involved in building reef structures, wound healing and symbiosis, and they will test their interactions in natural and 3D-printed models of synthetic corals. Then they will disrupt the model system and examine the resulting interactions to better understand the relationships at a molecular and organism level.

“Our goal after two years is to have a better resource platform for all the data – from oceanographic to cellular. We’ll have cell cultures and coral polyps, biological models and protocols and other tools for future studies. And we’ll understand what it is about the coral symbiosis that facilitates these symbiotic relationships,” said Putnam.

Ultimately, the researchers will end up with the data that will help natural resource managers and conservationists protect coral reefs from a variety of harmful human impacts.

“We could end up with conservation or restoration recommendations for how corals are grown or the properties they need to settle new coral recruits on,” Putnam added. “Primarily, though, we’ll end up with an improved data aggregation platform and a greatly improved understanding of coral biology and the tools we need to understand the system and apply science-based solutions.”

Included in the grant funding will be resources to hire graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, who will rotate among the labs at each participating institution. The research team will also provide educational outreach to the public at aquariums, schools and other venues.