Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary
Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary
2017 Gray's Reef Research Cruise Photos
Mission Information
 

Gray's Reef Research
Expeditions 2017

Wednesday: June 21, 2017
Log Day 13

Chris Hines
Gray's Reef Deputy Superintendent
Savannah, GA

When we think of the ocean, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? Perhaps vast expanses of water, whales, turtles, sharks, water activities, beaches, fun, inspiration, or all of the above. Have you ever thought about microbes when thinking about the ocean? I'm guessing not.

Meet Alicia Reigel, PhD student from Louisiana State University (LSU). She thinks about microbes a lot.

(Front row, L-R) Alicia Reigel, LSU, Risa Cohen, GSU; (Back row, L-R) Roldan Muñoz, NMFS, Tim Henkel, VSU, heading out to dive.

(Front row, L-R) Alicia Reigel, LSU, Risa Cohen, GSU; (Back row, L-R) Roldan Muñoz, NMFS, Tim Henkel, VSU, heading out to dive.
(Photo: Brianne Varnerin, GSU)

Originally hailing from Wisconsin, Alicia asked for a birthday present that her parents hoped would be a passing fad when she was 12. Scuba diving lessons. Fortunately for ocean research, it was not a passing fad. After a short stint in corporate management, Alicia studied abroad during her university experience in Bonaire, focusing on tropical conservation. That study abroad turned into three years in the dive mecca of Bonaire working in reef conservation tourism. Hundreds of dives later, she knew her career path was in the ocean research world. Alicia pursued a Master's degree from Georgia Southern University, working with Dr. Danny Gleason, which got her hooked on the benthic community at Gray's Reef. She is now a PhD student at LSU, and her research involves coral microbial communities.

Unknown Telesto, a type of soft coral.

Unknown Telesto, a type of soft coral.
(Photo: Brianne Varnerin, GSU)

Let's try to explain how important microbes are by using humans as an example. Human have all kinds of microbes and bacteria - they help to digest food and heal cuts, but also cause stinky breath or worse, infections. Similarly, corals also have microbes and bacteria associated with them, but we don't know too much about them. We don't know what species exist and we don't know what they are doing. Are they helpful or hurtful?

Significant work has been done addressing these microbial questions in hard coral communities, such as the Florida Keys and Caribbean. Gray's Reef, however, is temperate and contains more soft corals, so we know even less about these corals. Alicia could be described as Darwinian in the microbes of soft corals. She is exploring these microbial communities with the end goal to figure out how they might help soft coral deal with environmental change. If we can figure out what a healthy coral looks like versus one that is not healthy, then we can determine if coral could be healthy or not healthy before it shows signs of degradation. Early indicators of change are extremely valuable and this research focuses on that.

Another Telesto type of soft coral.

 Another Telesto type of soft coral.
 (Photo: Alicia Reigel, LSU)

During this research cruise, Alicia takes small snippets of specific corals. She then freezes the sample, identifies the species of coral, and extracts the DNA. This sample is then sequenced to determine the abundance and function of the microbe - is it helpful or harmful? Alicia can then compare and contrast her results between Gray's Reef, Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico locations. On this mission thus far, she has found six different species of soft coral, five that were expected and one that they did not know existed in Gray's Reef! Alicia is still on the hunt for three other soft coral types that are quite rare, but even if that does not happen, her mission has been a success with over 40 samples taken over the course of two weeks.

Thankfully, Alicia does not think about microbes much when she is outside of the ocean or office. She loves the work because it is so new, which may cause some interesting puzzles to solve along the way, but can lead to breakthroughs after months of troubleshooting. Fortunately, DNA analysis technology has evolved to be able to make this research feasible, where hundreds of thousands of DNA samples can be analyzed in a few months as opposed to a few years.

Alicia loves diving.

 Alicia loves diving.
 (Photo: Brianne Varnerin, GSU)

Alicia's work involves hundreds of very difficult-to-pronounce species names. Sparing the details, we will provide an important one: zooxanthellae. Zooxanthellae provide large amounts of energy to corals in a symbiotic relationship. As such, corals could not exist without zooxanthellae, just as corals could not exist without microbes. These three components are interconnected and need each other survive, just as humans need microbes and water.

As Alicia says, "we are kind of crazy sailing out way offshore and jumping straight down to see what is there". Let's hope current and future researchers like Alicia never stop exploring.


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