From Land to Sea

Penn State’s coral reef biologists credit the University’s expertise in genomics and research facilities in helping them earn a national reputation in their field.

Penn State’s strength in coral reef biology seems unlikely for a landlocked university in the middle of Pennsylvania. But with top research facilities and an academic environment that promotes cross-disciplinary study, Penn State coral reef biologists ask, “why not here?”

Some of the credit goes to Chuck Fisher, professor and distinguished senior scholar of biology, and for decades the University’s lone marine biologist.

Fisher studies mostly the deep ocean and is known for important contributions to our understanding of hydrothermal vents and the amazing organisms that populate these hot spots on the ocean floor. Recently, he spearheaded efforts to document the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. But Fisher was trained in shallow reef biology, and he knows well the importance of coral reefs, one of the most diverse—and fragile—ecosystems on the planet.

Coral reefs provide vital habitat for a cornucopia of marine life, protect vulnerable coastlines against tropical storms, and generate billions of dollars in economic value via fishing and tourism. Their potential for biomedical discovery has hardly been tapped. Yet their continued existence is in serious jeopardy in many places around the world due to overfishing, pollution, and rising ocean temperatures. “Coral reefs are in the forefront of the danger zone,” Fisher says. “Understanding them is critical to understanding the impacts of global warming.”

A still image of Paragorgia, which is also known as "bubblegum coral" and brittle stars (ophiuroids).

"Bubblegum Coral"

Paragorgia, which is also known as "bubblegum coral," and brittle stars (ophiuroids) as seen from an ROV. Coral reefs, one of the most diverse—and fragile—ecosystems on the planet, provide vital habitat for a variety of marine life, acts as barriers to vulnerable coastlines during tropical storms, and generate billions of dollars in economic value via fishing and tourism.

IMAGE: Courtesy of ECOGIG

“Coral reefs are in the forefront of the danger zone. Understanding them is critical to understanding the impacts of global warming.” —Chuck Fisher, professor and distinguished senior scholar of biology

Penn State’s current flush of expertise in this area began almost by chance. Iliana Baums, a specialist in the evolution and spread of coral populations around the world, arrived here when her husband joined the Department of Geosciences in 2006. Two years later, Todd LaJeunesse was a young assistant professor weary of life in Miami when he learned that Penn State was looking for a microbial ecologist. LaJeunesse, who studies the microscopic algae that corals need for their survival, fit the bill, and his work nicely complemented what Baums was already doing.

In 2012, Fisher was at a meeting in Puerto Rico when he happened to hear a presentation on coral microbiomes by Mónica Medina of the University of California at Merced. He was impressed enough to ask Medina to repeat the talk at University Park, and subsequently to push for her hiring. When Medina agreed to come east, Fisher remembers, “That’s when we knew we had something.”

The arrival of Roberto Iglesias Prieto from the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 2016 rounds out the group. A veteran field researcher who Fisher calls “probably the top coral physiologist in the world,” Iglesias Prieto had been working for twenty years at a research station near Cancun—an idyllic spot, to be sure, but he missed the stimulation of a major university campus. In the small world of coral reef biology, he, Fisher, and LaJeunesse had all trained under the eminent Robert Trench at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Iglesias Prieto had also known and collaborated with Medina for years. “We thought if we could get Roberto, we could have the best coral reef group in the U.S.,” Fisher says. “And now we do.”

“The group is strong, really strong,” Medina agrees. “We complement each other well, and we all have projects going with each other. We’re being recognized as a hub, and because of that we’re attracting amazing students.”

To the familiar question, “Why central Pennsylvania?,” LaJeunesse offers a ready answer. “With an airport close by, State College is as good as anywhere in the world for coral reef biology,” he says. “Better, when you look at Penn State’s research facilities.”

“We’ve got a wonderful DNA core facility, some of the best genomicists in the world, people in bioinformatics who are at the top of their field. Why not here?” —Todd LaJeunesse, associate professor of biology

His fieldwork takes two or three weeks a year, he says; for the rest, “We’ve got a wonderful DNA core facility, some of the best genomicists in the world, people in bioinformatics who are at the top of their field. Why not here?”

Iglesias Prieto, for his part, has been most impressed by the opportunities for cross-disciplinary exchange. “I’ve enjoyed every minute,” he says. Well, maybe not every minute. For a native of Mexico City and long-time resident of Cancun, there is one significant hardship associated with doing coral reef research in central Pennsylvania. It sets in around December.

From the Classroom to the Deep Sea

Given the University’s strength in coral reef studies, students are able to take advantage of unique research opportunities that take them off campus and into areas like the Gulf of Mexico.

Colin Bashaw, who recently graduated from Penn State with a degree in biology with a neuroscience option, was one of four undergraduate students who embarked on the 12-day “Jewels of the Gulf: Deepwater Expedition” to investigate the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico.

The spill, which took place in 2010, resulted in the deaths of eleven oil rig workers and remains the largest marine oil spill in history. Bashaw, Baums—who was the expedition’s chief scientist—as well as a team of researchers and students from the Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas to the Gulf (ECOGIG) research consortium, studied deep sea corals in the region to better understand the level of impact and the tolerance these corals have to the presence of oil, methane, and the chemical dispersants used to break down the oil following the spill.

The consortium, which is one of several supported by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, is led by project director Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia. Other institutions participating in this expedition include Temple University, Lehigh University, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Penn State is one of the only institutions within the consortium to include undergraduate students as part of the research expedition team.

“I thought, ‘when am I going to have the opportunity again to do deep sea studies?’ I was happy to take advantage of all the opportunities Penn State had to offer.” —Colin Bashaw, biology graduate

Although his interests will likely take him to graduate or medical school, Bashaw wanted to experience all areas of biology. When he saw a research opportunity to explore and work with coral hundreds of years old with the potential of actually going on a deep-sea expedition, he was intrigued.

“I thought, ‘when am I going to have the opportunity again to do deep sea studies?’” says Bashaw. “I was happy to take advantage of all the opportunities Penn State had to offer.”

Having never been on a boat for more than a few hours, he found two weeks at sea to be an eye-opening experience.

“I remember being out on the bow of the boat and not being able to see land,” says Bashaw. “It was pretty surreal.”

While on the expedition, Bashaw kept track of the log used to record information collected from the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Global Explorer. The ROV was sent to depths of more than 1,000 meters and, using mounted high-resolution cameras, captured hundreds of still images of corals that have been monitored yearly since the spill in 2010.

“Continued monitoring is critical. A lot remains to be learned about these amazing and beautiful animals.” ­

Chuck Fisher

Bashaw also helped in the cold room, which is where samples taken from the deep-sea floor were collected and preserved for further analysis. Team members worked to model the deep-sea environment, which tends to be extremely stable. Bashaw says that with species living in such stability it becomes very easy to see the damage caused as a result of an environmental disturbance.

“This lab taught me that corals are an excellent organism for determining the health of an ecosystem,” says Bashaw. “They’re very sensitive. We had to make sure the cold room temperature was just right, otherwise the samples we collected would die.”

“Continued monitoring is critical,” says Fisher. “After seven years, the 500-year old corals are still recovering from the effects of the spill and their ultimate fate is still not known. A lot remains to be learned about these amazing and beautiful animals.”

Everything is Connected

Just as one could question why a group of coral reef biologists would set up shop in central Pennsylvania, some may wonder why it is critical to educate the general public—where in the United States, the majority reside hundreds of miles away from any coastline—on the importance of coral reef ecosystems and the impact we have on them.

According to Baums, we’re all connected.

“We’re land animals. We breathe air. We walk on land,” says Baums, who explains the excitement of studying a very unfamiliar environment. But there are also sobering moments such as when images of exotic sea creatures and fields of coral never before seen are interrupted by lone trash bags tumbling across the screen in the ROV control room.

“It’s eye opening to observe first-hand that our impact has reached the deep ocean,” she says. “But, if we weren’t there to look, we’d never gain the understanding and the background to take steps to help minimize our impact. That’s something that people may not appreciate because the ocean seems so far away. But what we do affects the fisheries, streams, and watersheds where we live, and those eventually flow into the ocean. It’s all connected.”

Buried Treasure

When Penn State marine biologist Mónica Medina saw a garden of living coral under 10 feet of murky water, her first thought was automatic: How could a reef be thriving here, starved of light and choked with sediment and pollution? It’s a question whose answers may have global implications. Read more about Colombia’s Varadero reef on Penn State News.