Doing a better job of assessing the health of coral reefs is a vital task for ensuring the health of our entire planet, but scientists have struggled to find effective ways to do that. Now a team of researchers at the University of North Carolina Wilmington has developed a prototype diagnostic device that we think will make a huge difference in this essential branch of marine science.
Corals reefs are a critical habitat for many commercial seafood species. They are essential to the livelihoods of millions of people and for the protection of low-lying coastlines. They are also among the most threatened ecosystems on Earth. Because of their diversity and worldwide importance, these reefs have been called “the rain forests of the ocean.” Researchers around the globe are searching for ways to help protect the foundation species, the reef-building corals, from damage created by global warming, ocean acidification and pollution. The loss of corals has been well documented over the past four decades, but researchers have few tools for measuring and studying their physiology. Hopefully, understanding how corals respond to their environments, we can do something to save them. Too often, unfortunately, that essential research itself inflicts damage on the corals.
Alina Szmant, Ph.D., and Robert Whitehead, Ph.D., of UNCW’s Marine Science faculty have perfected a new device that allows for non-destructive evaluation of the metabolisms of live corals in their natural environment and in real time. They call it CISME, for “Coral In Situ Metabolism.” The acronym is pronounced “kiss me,” to emphasize how gently it touches the living organisms.
Until now, researchers relied on crude and much less accurate methods. A scientist like Szmant, who is a marine biologist specializing in corals, would strap on diving gear and visually inspect a reef, measuring such things as the percentage of live coral covering an area, or the ratio between living and dead organisms. But to figure out the cause of such maladies as coral “bleaching,” we needed techniques equivalent to how a physician takes a patient’s temperature, pulse and blood pressure.
“How do you measure anything about their function,” Szmant asked about the fragile coral organisms, “without having to do something destructive?” The answer for most marine biologists, herself included, “was to go diving with a hammer and chisel,” breaking off chunks of living coral, and bringing them to labs on research vessels or back on shore. The biologist would then struggle to duplicate the precise conditions under which the corals had lived, including water chemistry, temperature, currents and even food before they could conduct experiments.
“We had to try to second-guess nature,” she said, “doing a lot of futzing around” – that’s one of those technical terms we scientists use – “to recreate the ecosystem.” Needless to say, this could only approximate what was actually going on around the living reefs the samples had come from.
For the past six-plus years, Szmant and Whitehead have been working on how to reverse the process: taking the instruments into the field, instead of bringing specimens to the instruments. Financed by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and collaborating with an engineering firm in Boston, the team worked to integrate instruments, computer processors, software and other components into a workable device. “In January 2015,” Szmant explained, “we took over the whole project,” and are completing a half-dozen test models that will be offered as “loaners” for other research teams to try out.
Meanwhile, the search is on for a partner to commercialize the device, and to produce it at a price that marine scientists around the world can afford. It’s a fairly sophisticated piece of equipment, with several expensive components. We are seeking a manufacturer that will be able to make sufficient profit in spite of it being a low-volume product: “We’ll be lucky to get 20 people a year who can afford this at first,” Szmant acknowledged.
But to learn more about how, and under what circumstances, environmental stresses are killing the world’s reefs, CISME will be invaluable. The chemical measurements it takes, from water actually circulating through live, intact, filter-feeding corals, allow calculations of the organisms’ respiration rate (how they process oxygen and carbon dioxide); photosynthesis rate (how plants and algae produce sugars using energy from sunlight); and calcification rate (the coral polyps’ ability to build hard skeletons.)
Szmant is working on making CISME useful to biologists studying other marine organisms, not just corals. It can also be used to measure metabolic rates of various forms of marine algae, and nutrient cycling by microorganisms in marine sediments. Expanding the range of organisms and ecosystems CISME can be used on will improve its potential for commercialization.
This invention is a perfect example of how creative collaborations are the essence of what we do at MARBIONC and CREST Research Park. From basic science, to the engineering know-how needed to create a practical diagnostic device, to the commercial enterprise needed to bring it to market, our mandate is to pull together academic and business expertise for mutual benefit.
UNCW CREST Research Park is a front-runner in marine biotech research and development. Researchers are exploring the potential of natural products derived from the sea to treat or cure human diseases and meet other important needs.
Photo contributed by UNC Wilmington.
Discover why rising biotechnology and life sciences groups from all over the country are moving to UNCW CREST Research Park. UNCW CREST Research Park offers top-notch commercial laboratories available for lease at affordable rates, flexible terms, and innovative product development opportunities that are unmatched by any other park. Connect with CREST at [email protected] today.
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