A group of researchers has been selected by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to work on genomic tools that may lead to better understanding of the relationship between gene function and the physical and functional characteristics of organisms.
The program, known as Enabling Discovery through Genomic Tools, or EDGE, has been awarded 14 million U.S. dollars from the NSF's Biological Sciences Directorate.
Virginia Weis, head of the Department of Integrative Biology in the Oregon State University (OSU) College of Science, is one of eight researchers selected for EDGE and plans to use her 1.875 million dollars program award on furthering the study of the microscale cellular, molecular and genetic mechanisms that underpin the symbiosis between corals and algae.
Corals are made up of interconnected animal hosts called polyps that house microscopic algae inside their cells, Weis explained in a news release from OSU on Monday. The coral-algal symbiosis, or partnership, is the foundation of the entire coral reef ecosystem; the polyps receive food from the algae, and the polyps in turn provide nutrients and protection to the algae.
The project will bring together coral biologists, cell biologists and geneticists from Stanford University, the Carnegie Institution and Florida International University to study a small sea anemone that serves as a proxy for corals.
Corals do not survive well in a laboratory setting, are slow growing and are difficult to collect.
The fast-growing, weedy sea anemone Aiptasia will allow researchers to make quick progress on the study of coral symbiosis.
"This award is focused on technique development and swift dissemination of results through online communication platforms to both the scientific community and the public," Weis was quoted as saying. "A variety of genetic techniques will be developed, including gene editing in both partners, to be able to test hypotheses about the involvement of specific genes in coral health and stress."
"Coral reefs are profoundly important, diverse ecosystems that are threatened worldwide by environmental variation and stress," she noted. "While a great deal of attention has been focused on the environmental threats to corals, there remains only a partial understanding of the regulation of the symbiosis, and more knowledge will provide a stronger foundation for studies of coral health and coral stress, such as coral bleaching."