HOUSTON – (March 28, 2022) – Rice University marine biologist Adrienne Correa has won a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER award for following her lab’s 2021 discovery that coral predators may play an important role in maintaining healthy coral reefs.
The award comes as a marine heatwave on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef causes widespread coral bleaching, a stress response in which corals evict their symbiotic tenants, the algae that give them color and help to feed them. This is the fourth mass bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef in the past seven years, and bleaching events around the world are increasing in frequency and severity. Bleaching degrades coral reefs, and Correa’s lab is looking for factors that can limit or reverse that damage.
In a surprising twist on coral reef symbiosis, Correa and his students discovered that the feces of coral-eating fish are highly concentrated with live microorganisms that are essential for coral health, and the activities of these fish could help baby corals grow and potentially help reefs respond. to climate change.
“What we’re really trying to figure out, zooming in to 50,000 feet, is ‘Do coral-eating fish droppings help corals survive? said Correa, an assistant professor in Rice’s Department of Biosciences.
The CAREER awards are highly competitive and include a five-year grant, this one for $982,000, to support early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models and leaders in research and education. The NSF began giving out the awards in 1995 and only awards about 500 each year across all disciplines. Correa is Rice’s 100th CAREER award and the 10th of 2022, the most the university has received in a year.
The symbiotic relationship between corals and dinoflagellate algae is central to Correa’s CAREER research. Each coral can potentially host multiple species of dinoflagellates, and Correa’s lab and others have shown that symbiont diversity can help corals survive stressful conditions like those associated with warming oceans.
About half of corals obtain their algal partners from their environment, rather than being born with them. Enter the coral-eating fish, which gather millions of symbionts by bite. Despite the damage these bites inflict on individual corals, their overall effect on reef health could be positive. To avoid being eaten by larger fish, coral predators rush from coral to coral between stings, and this constant movement could help them deliver concentrated packs of living symbionts each time they drop a pellet. of poop.
“If we find that the droppings of coral-eating fish are beneficial to corals, in terms of maintaining this symbiotic partnership, then we can start to leverage this information to mitigate damage to reefs,” Correa said. “For example, we could try to place more coral-eating fish on the reefs to propagate beneficial symbionts to the corals. This research could also give us a better understanding of how corals use the microbial probiotic solutions that researchers are currently testing.
Correa’s lab will test these ideas in experiments at Rice and the long-term ecological research station on the coral reefs of Mo’orea in French Polynesia.
“Every day, adult corals take in some symbionts and spit out others,” she said. “And sometimes the symbiotes they expel are healthy and in good shape; other times they are not. One of the questions is therefore “How important are the symbionts of fish excrement, compared to those released by corals?”
Under certain conditions, faecal symbionts might be more important to coral uptake and survival than symbionts discarded by other adult corals, and research recently funded by Correa is designed to unravel these conditions.
For example, Correa and his team want to know if symbionts in the droppings of coral predators can help reefs recover from bleaching.
A number of studies have shown that certain species of symbionts are better able to tolerate warming ocean conditions. Correa said many aspects of bleaching are not well understood, but there is evidence that corals are more likely to expel unhealthy symbionts that are struggling to survive.
“During bleaching conditions, some coral-eating fish have been observed to focus their feeding on corals that are not bleached,” Correa said. “It is possible that these fish collect and distribute symbionts that have beneficial adaptations to heat stress or are at least healthier. Not all corals can function with all types of symbionts, however, while coral-eating fish activity may help corals survive stress, it alone will not protect reefs from climate change.
His CAREER-funded research will test whether these coral-eating fish droppings help bleached corals survive and recover.
“We will compare the responses of corals exposed to both feces from coral-eating fish and feces from coral-eating fish as well as experimental controls,” Correa said. “We’ll see if droppings from coral-eating fish help corals improve faster or improve their chances of survival.”
The educational component of his research for the CAREER award has two components. Each summer, his lab will host a Houston Independent School District environmental science teacher who will help conduct research and use the experience to design classroom teaching modules. The grant also includes funds to help undergraduate students in the Rice Emerging Scholars Program work in the lab for multiple consecutive years.
Although the NSF grant does not include funds for RESP students to travel to Moorea, Correa said she would like to seek other funding to try to make this happen if students are interested.
“RESP students will really have a long-term, immersive experience in the lab, and I would be very happy to see them in the field as well,” she said. “Learning to deepen their research experience will help them focus on what scientifically excites them and show them that they can achieve it.”
“CAREER: Testing the Effects of Predator-Derived Feces on Host Symbiont Acquisition and Health,” NSF Ocean Science Division.
CAPTION: Adrienne Correa, marine biologist and assistant professor of biosciences at Rice University, won a National Science Foundation CAREER award for following her lab’s 2021 discovery that coral predators may play a role in maintaining the health of coral reefs. (Photo by Brandon Marin/Rice University)
CAPTION: Rice University graduate student Carsten Grupstra takes notes while tracking coral-eating fish in Mo’orea, French Polynesia, October 2020. (Photo by Alex Veglia/Rice University)
CAPTION: Chaetodon lunulatus, a coral predator photographed in Mo’orea, French Polynesia, in October 2020. (Photo by Alex Veglia/Rice University)
Correa Research Group: www.owlnet.rice.edu/~ac53/index.html
BioSciences at Rice: biosciences.rice.edu
Wiess School of Natural Sciences: naturalsciences.rice.edu
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