Debashish Bhattacharya, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, receives three-year $611,311 grant from the National Science Foundation

image of Debashish Bhattacharya

Debashish Bhattacharya, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology has received a three-year $611,311 grant from the National Science Foundation to build a comprehensive model for the coral stress response using genomic and physiological data. The work is entitled, Elucidating Adaptive Potential through Coral Holobiont Functional Integration. The project field site is at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology in Oahu and includes coral ecologist Hollie Putnam (PI) at the University of Rhode Island and bioinformatics specialist Arik Harel (Co-PI) at the Institute of Plant Sciences in The Volcani Center in Israel. The total NSF support for the proposal is $1.1 million with additional funding provided by the Binational Science Foundation for the Israeli partner.

The widespread Hawaiian rice coral Montipora capitata

As it is now well understood, the success of coral reefs is explained by interactions of the coral animal with its symbiotic microbiome that is comprised of photosynthetic algae and bacteria. This total organism, or “holobiont”, enables high ecosystem biodiversity and productivity in coral reefs. These ecosystems are however under threat from a rapidly changing environment. The project aims to integrate information from the cellular to organismal level to identify key mechanisms of adaptation and acclimatization to environmental stress. Specific areas to be investigated include the role of symbionts and of epigenetics (molecular “marks” on coral DNA that regulate gene expression). These aspects will be studied with PI Putnam in the Hawaiian corals Montipora capitata and Pocillopora acuta to determine whether they explain why some individuals are sensitive or resistant to environmental perturbation that may lead to “coral bleaching”. Results from the proposed project will also provide significant genomic resources that will contribute to fundamental understanding of how biological systems generate emergent properties when faced with fluctuating environments.

Hawaiian rice coral Montipora capitata

Israeli partner Harel will implement powerful analytical techniques such as network theory to detect key transcriptional hubs in meta-organisms and quantify biological integration. This work will generate a stress gene inventory and a (epi)genome and microbiome level of understanding of how corals respond to the physical environment.

The Rutgers group will integrate additional microbiome and metagenome data from Montipora that will come from a PacBio SMRT grant that was recently awarded to the Bhattacharya group. The team members will also work with experts to develop genetic tools for corals.

The Hawaiian coral Porites compressa