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Reef Rescuer

Corralling Coral Disease

Biologist studies corals at the cellular level to help save diseased reefs

Since 2014, an infection has been killing coral reefs off the coast of Florida. More recently, that disease was reported in other areas of the Caribbean. Biology Professor Laura Mydlarz is working to uncover cellular mechanisms that may help corals overcome infections and other environmental stressors.

coral reef illustration

In a paper published in July, she and her UTA collaborators studied corals’ mitochondrial unfolded protein response to determine how it may help corals survive in stressful environments.

“Corals are the base of the ecosystem,” Dr. Mydlarz says. “Without live coral, the reef doesn’t have the structure it needs to support life that relies on it. Understanding the existence of this gene means that there is now the potential to identify if corals are experiencing stress before they appear dead or bleached.”

Dr Laura Mydlarz
“Without live coral, the reef doesn’t have the structure it needs to support life that relies on it.”
Laura Mydlarz

In another study published late last year, Mydlarz sought to better understand why some coral species succumb to disease while others adapt, build immunity, and survive. She thinks cellular-level differences in immunity may contribute to these responses.

For this research, she studied the coral animal while her collaborators looked at other aspects of the problem (such as the pathogen itself or how water flow affects the disease). The study was funded by a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences.

“My lab will assess immunity and disease resistance in coral based on a unique combination of immune phenotypes, including expressed genes and protein activity,” Mydlarz says. “This approach will allow us to build pathways and turn groups of genes into immune traits.”

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