Published On: Wed, Feb 20th, 2013

Students scuba dive in Curaçao for research

DivingWILLEMSTAD - A coral reef is a wonderful sight to see, but it is much more than what meets the eye. These underwater structures are made of calcium carbonate and are built by colonies of marine animals that we call corals.

“When you look at a coral, you’re not looking at a single organism. You’re looking at a complex interaction of the host, the coral animal itself, and a really diverse microbial community that associates with it,” said Anthony Bellanuoto, a graduate student completing his doctorate in marine biology. Bellanuoto said the interactions with the bacterial community are not well understood. “Understanding them is important to the context of the survival of the coral reef,” he said.

Assistant Professor Mauricio Rodriguez-Lanetty leads a group of graduate students in a lab as they study the interactions between the coral and microbial organisms found on the reefs, among other things. They call themselves the Laboratory of Integrative Marine Genomics and Symbiosis, or IMaGeS. It is currently composed of Rodriguez-Lanetty, Research Assistant Ariane Martin, and two doctoral students, Tanya Brown and Bellanuoto. The group is currently on a 10-day trip to the Island of Curaçao where they will be collecting samples of the microorganisms existing on the reef.

“In Curaçao, we’re going to be collecting these samples underwater via scuba diving and then bringing them to the surface, preserving them and taking them back to the labs at FIU,” Bellanuoto said. The trip is part of a whole research project based on the findings of the location. “We had been planning this trip for a couple of months now. My Ph.D. advisor has been investigating in Curaçao for a number of years already,” Bellanuoto said.

Even though coral reefs are located in South Florida throughout the coasts of the peninsula, IMaGeS is investigating this ecosystem in Curaçao because of accessibility and the diversity of the reefs. “The access to the actual sites there will be directly from shore; we can dive in directly to the reef and back easily,” Bellanuoto said. “Among the diverse range of this island, there are areas with anthropogenic disturbance or human disturbance, as well as more pristine or untouched areas, so it works for us for that reason.”

All this research might appear to be only important to those who are part of the scientific community; however, the understanding of these interactions is still of importance to everyone else because of the implications it has not only for biology and ecology spectrums, but also for the economy. According to coralreef.gov, these ecosystems are fundamental to the fishing industry, coastal protection, tourism and pharmaceutical production. All around the world coral reef ecosystems are struggling to survive due to human intervention, global warming and other climate changes.

Any effort put towards the investigation is crucial, considering the estimated $375 billion a year that these ecosystems provide in the form of products and services, aside from the ecological consequences of its deterioration. If you want to find out more about what IMaGeS is doing you can visit their website at imageslab.fiu.edu.

By: Ivan Ardila

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