Mote scientist to study how susceptible coral immune systems are to disease

Dr. Erinn Muller, Staff Scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory, recently received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER) award for two-years of research aimed at better predicting how corals react to disease exposure and how that will influence the coral community of the future.
The study is based on immune response and disease resistance and will quantify how susceptible coral species are to disease by examining their immunity through a series of novel experiments and approaches.
“Coral disease is one of the greatest threats to reefs around the world, causing catastrophic losses when outbreaks occur,” Muller said. “We need to understand more about how corals react to these diseases so we can help them bounce back and survive these changing conditions.”
The EAGER award supports exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches. It enables the future of new approaches in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning and innovation.
This $220,331 grant will allow Muller and two other scientists, Laura Mydlarz (University Texas) and Marilyn Brandt (University of Virgin Islands), to study seven coral species from the Caribbean and look for ways to better understand how diseases affect coral communities and how corals may respond to different climate change scenarios.
“This information may help us better identify disease resistance and susceptibility for reefs worldwide,” Muller said. “Understanding which species of coral are resilient and why will aid in more informed management decisions, especially when deciding which corals are best suited for coral reef restoration projects.”
Coral reefs are very sensitive to environmental changes, which may increase coral colonies' susceptibility to many diseases, including white plague, which can cause rapid tissue loss and partial or total colony mortality.
Disturbances such as white plague outbreaks play increasingly important roles in changing the structure of coral reef communities, particularly in the Caribbean.
The Caribbean has been called a “hot spot” for coral disease because of a rapid emergence of new diseases, increased frequency of disease-related events and rapid spread of emerging diseases among new species and regions.
“We hypothesize that disease outbreaks are one of the primary factors shaping reef declines in the Caribbean today and that we can predict future coral community structure using disease and immune traits,” Muller said.
Scientists hope the results of this study will identify particular immune traits that may influence community structure, demonstrate how disease and immune traits are shaping community structure of corals, and provide predictions of how the structure of reef communities throughout the Caribbean region will change under different climate change scenarios.        
The first step will be to determine how the immune systems in each of the tested coral species differ by exposing them to bacterial immune stimulators, molecules which will trigger an authentic immune response without having a pathogen, or cause of an actual disease present.
The second step will be to measure susceptibility of these corals to white plague disease by exposing the corals to white plague in a lab setting.
The third step will be to use the data from these two experiments to create a predictive model that will identify the potential winners and losers within the coral community under future climate-change scenarios.
Muller is responsible for creating the predictive model.
“Ultimately, I will be using the data collected by the two experiments to create a way to help predict how these coral species will react during future changes in our climate,” Muller said. “We hope this study will increase our baseline knowledge of coral immunity and susceptibility to disease, which is a leading causes of death in corals in the Caribbean. Once we learn this, we can learn how to best conserve these species and prevent future disease outbreaks.”

The scientists who will conduct the study. Left to right: Marilyn Brandt (University of theVirgin Islands), Laura Mydlarz (University of Texas), Erinn Muller (Mote Marine Laboratory