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Mydlarz receives grant to study disease in Caribbean coral

A coral infected with Yellow-band disease
A coral infected with Yellow-band disease

Biology assistant professor Laura Mydlarz has received a $409,537 grant from the Organism-Environment Interactions Program (OEI) of the National Science Foundation to study disease in coral, particularly disease caused by environmental stress.

The study, “Assessing the Effect of Environmental Stressors on Invertebrate Innate Immunity using a Coral Pathosystem,” is a collaboration between Mydlarz, Ernesto Weil of the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, and John Bruno of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Their research will focus on coral in the Caribbean which are affected by many bacterial and fungal diseases. One particularly destructive disease is known as Yellow-band disease. Yellow-band disease attacks colonies of coral at a time when the coral is already stressed by pollution, overfishing, and climate change. It is characterized by large blotches or patches of bleached, yellowed tissue on Caribbean scleractinian corals, also called stony corals.

The study will examine the effects of environmental stressors on the Montastraea coral, one of the more important species of reef-building coral in the Caribbean. Specifically, the work will look at how coral immune and self-defense mechanisms are affected by temperature, nutrient and pathogen stress.

“We are working to describe the basic innate immune responses of reef-building corals,” Mydlarz said. “Specifically, characterizing how environmental stressors such as temperature affect the corals ability to fight pathogens.”

Yellow-band is a bacterial infection which spreads over the coral, causing pale yellow bands of lesions on the coral’s surface. The disease often leads to coral death. Scientists fear that Yellow-band disease has already seriously affected reef-building coral in the Caribbean, and believe it has been worsened by the effects of climate change.

“We’re going to be looking at how the coral fights the disease,” Mydlarz said. “This Yellow-band disease is a very serious problem for the coral around Puerto Rico. If these corals die, there won’t be any reefs.”

Laura Mydlarz
Laura Mydlarz

Mydlarz will spend a portion of next summer doing field work in the Caribbean around Puerto Rico along with UT Arlington graduate and post-doctoral students. In addition, Mydlarz is involved in a study to examine the immune responses of the Caribbean sea fan Gorgonia ventalina, a soft coral, to the fungus Aspergillus sydowii. Mydlarz and Drew Harvell of Cornell University will collaborate to study how variations in water temperature affect the quality of coral immune responses and its ability to fight infectious diseases.

The sea fan study is funded by a two-year, $58,061 grant from the National Science Foundation's Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE).

Mydlarz has B.S. and M.S. degrees in Marine Biology from Florida Atlantic University and a Ph.D. in Marine Science from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She joined the UT Arlington faculty in 2006, after doing post-doctoral work at Cornell University.