6/15/2017 Peter Durantine

Biology Researchers Study What’s Killing Tropical Ocean Coral

In a Franklin & Marshall laboratory, Professor of Biology Peter Fields works with rising senior Rachel Clifford, a biology major using a spectrophotometer to measure how long a protein in algae survives under increasing temperature associated with climate change.

“Literally, we are cooking the protein like we cook the whites of eggs,” Fields said. “Rachel is the first researcher to ever work with the phosphoglucose isomerase (PGI) protein in Symbiodinium, the single-cell algae that live within coral.”

With a generous grant from the National Science Foundation, Fields and his five students are examining the algae, which thrive inside the tissue of tropical ocean coral, providing the marine invertebrates’ energy. In this important symbiosis, the coral returns the favor by providing the algae nutrients and protection.

“We hypothesize that the coral is able to handle higher temperatures, but the algae are not,” the professor said. “So when water temperatures get too high, the algae essentially start to die – to cook – and that can damage the coral. So the coral expels the algae. That’s basically what coral bleaching is.”

In their research, the students examine the performance of metabolic enzymes in the coral and in the algae. 

  • A biochemistry and molecular biology major, Cody Kalinoswki ’18 works on purifying protein samples for the research. A biochemistry and molecular biology major, Cody Kalinoswki ’18 works on purifying protein samples for the research. Image Credit: Deb Grove

“We’re specifically looking at how sensitive the enzymes are to temperature,” Fields said. “We know that coral bleaching often occurs in response to high temperatures.”

Scientists are deeply concerned that global warming and bleaching, especially along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, could devastate much of the coral-reef habitat in the next 50 years, Fields said.

“We know temperature is one of the most important causes of bleaching, but no one knows the biological or physiological basis for it,” said the Dr. E. Paul & Frances H. Reiff Professor of Biology. “Why the symbiosis is breaking down and why the coral is ultimately kicking the algae out is what we want to know.”

While Clifford works with the PGI protein, biochemistry and molecular biology majors Cody Kalinoswki ’18 and Garrett Lagoza ’18 are purifying glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (GAPDH) protein samples before they assess how long the protein remains stable under increasing temperatures.

Working with the students is alumnae Brittany Perez ’17, who is a postgraduate research assistant. “It’s my first time doing research out of class,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

In another part of the lab, biochemistry and molecular biology major River Zhang ’18 works to sequence the genes coding for these proteins for inclusion in the research.

“I think biology is very interesting,” Zhang said. “The research is great preparation for people going to graduate school.”

  • An example of bleached coral found in the Pacific Ocean. An example of bleached coral found in the Pacific Ocean.
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