Project CHOMPIN: Parrotfish, nutrients, and the coral microbiome

CHOMPIN comic.

Ecology is the study of the relationships among organisms and the relationships of organisms to their physical surroundings. The interactions of organisms can be described as a complex web with many junctions or relationships, and a single ecologist may focus on one or many relationships in a community or ecosystem. Our guest this week, Rebecca (Becca) Maher PhD student in the Department of Microbiology, is interested in the effect of environmental stressors on the coral microbiome. Let’s break this down by interaction:

  • Beneficial algae, bacteria, and viruses interact with coral by living in coral tissue and forming the coral microbiome
  • Corals interact with other organisms in the coral reef ecosystem, such as parrot fish
  • Corals are affected by their surrounding environment: water temperature, water nutrients, and pollution

Becca at the Newport aquarium for Scientific Diver Training through Oregon State University.

You may be familiar with coral bleaching and coral reef decline from our past episodes. Corals form a mutualistic relationship (both organisms benefit) with algae, where algae take shelter within coral tissue and provide the coral with food from photosynthesis. It is well known that high temperatures lead to coral bleaching, or a shift in the coral microbiome resulting from the loss of beneficial algae that live within the coral. Coral bleaching is often fatal.

Becca is interested in other aspects of the coral microbiome, such as differences in the symbiotic bacterial communities brought about by nutrient enrichment from agricultural run-off and overfishing. Do corals in nutrient rich water have a different microbiome than corals in nutrient poor water? Do corals in highly fished areas have a different microbiome than corals in fish-rich areas? In overfished areas, predatory fish (e.g. parrotfish) may bite coral (hence Project CHOMPIN), and so how does the coral microbiome respond after wounding by parrotfish?

Becca diving at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Northwest Gulf of Mexico for her undergraduate thesis at Rice University.

These questions are relevant for our knowledge of environmental factors that threaten coral reef ecosystems. Corals are in decline globally and with them are the high diversity of marine species that gain shelter and substrate from the coral reef. The information gained from Becca’s research may be informative for policy makers concerned with agricultural practices near marine areas and fishing regulations.  Rebecca is traveling to Morrea, French Polynesia this August to set up her field and laboratory experiments at the Gump Biological Research Station.

This upcoming trip is highly anticipated for Becca, who has been pursuing research in marine ecosystems since her time at Rice University. After working with her undergraduate mentor Adrienne Correa at Rice, Becca’s general focus on Ecology shifted to a focus on Marine Ecology. For Becca, her project at Oregon State in the Vega Thurber Lab is a harmonious mix of field work, high-level experimental design, bioinformatics, and statistics—a nice capstone for a Marine Ecologist with aspirations for future research.

Hear more about Becca’s work with corals the Sunday at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM. Not a local listener? Stream our broadcast live.

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