Soper Lab Investigates Genetic Expression in Endangered Coral Species


November 25, 2019: This story has been corrected. David Vaughan’s current title is former program director of coral restoration not program director of coral restoration.

During the summer of 2018, the biology department began researching something seemingly impossible to study in Texas: coral. Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Deanna Soper has been interested in marine life and the ocean for a long time — it was not until recently that she began researching coral and how it grows. 

Coral reefs are a critical aspect of the marine ecosystem — many fish depend on them for shelter and food. Additionally, coastal cities rely on them for protection against massive waves and as a food source, because they are home to a diverse range of animals. 

Many corals are very slow growing, with growth rates of 0.3 to3 centimeters per year. Due to recent coral bleaching events caused by climate change, coral reefs around the world are in decline with up to 50 percent loss over the past 30 years.

One way to help keep the coral reefs alive is through coral restoration. Mote Marine Laboratory in the Florida Keys is one of the leading organizations that helps restore coral through a method called microfragmenting. Microfragmenting is the process of cutting one piece of coral into many small pieces of about one centimeter each. 

A microfragment of brain, boulder and star corals, which are reef building species, will grow in three years what it takes a coral in the wild 30 years to grow. These microfragments are then grown to about five centimeters and outplanted back into the ocean to fuse with other microfragments of the same genotypes, eventually creating a new reef building structure. 

Soper visited Mote Marine Lab last spring and met Dr. David Vaughan, the former director of the coral restoration program at Mote. 

“I happened to be going down there to visit them and my uncle offered to introduce me to his very good friend, Dr. Dave,” said Soper.

“He showed me his microfragments and he talked about the microfragmenting process and how they had this observation of rapid growth,” Soper said. “We discussed questions that needed to be asked, and of course, one of those questions was, what, genetically is happening? What genes are being turned on or off to induce rapid growth? So then, he agreed to send me microfragments here to UD.” 

One of Soper’s summer undergraduate researchers from last summer, John Paul Dieffenthaller, ’19, was the first to do research on this project. During his 10 week research period, he read up on as many papers as possible on coral maintenance and genetic analysis techniques. 

“We would skype Hayden [Tompkins] and people from Mote to see what they did with their tanks and water chemistry to get the water chemistry right in our tanks,” said Dieffenthaller.

“One challenge was trying to figure out what exactly to study,” Dieffenthaller said. “Dr. Stenesen came up with the idea of the Hippo Growth Pathway, so I read a bunch of papers to look at genes in the Hippo Growth Pathway. Coral isn’t a very studied species so there’s not a whole lot out there.” 

Currently, the Soper lab is investigating expression of Cyclin E, which is involved with stimulating cell growth, and also involved in the Hippo Growth Pathway. They have data which shows that microfragments with higher Cyclin E expression levels also grow the fastest. 

Soper explained, “although I am technically an evolutionary biologist, all of these things have evolutionary implications … The different genotypes that are out in nature are what are going to dictate what we see in future generations … if we have a lot of genetic diversity then the corals are going to be more resilient to dramatic climate changes that are occurring and more able to evolve to be resistant to new climate parameters.” 

Knowing the expression of Cyclin E in different genotypes of coral provides a biomarker that people in the coral restoration industry could use to select different types of corals with quicker growth rates to outplant, which could make coral restoration easier and more efficient.


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