Research into Resilience of Atlantic Coral Helping to Inform Solutions for Tropical Coral Health

RWU professor’s latest research describes the microbiome of the hardy Northern Star Coral, which can withstand extreme temperatures

By Jill Rodrigues '05
Professor works with students on coral research.
Professor Koty Sharp works with undergraduate student researchers to examine the local Northern Star Coral's microbiome to understand how microbes might contribute to the resilience of these hardy corals.

BRISTOL, R.I. – By investigating the microbiome of our local Northern Star Coral, a Roger Williams University professor is making breakthroughs on understanding how microbes might contribute to resilience in corals, with the goal of finding solutions for addressing tropical coral reef health around the globe.

In collaboration with researchers from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and Georgia Institute of Technology, RWU Assistant Professor of Marine Biology Koty Sharp has been conducting a detailed investigation of the bacterial communities that live in and on the Northern Star Coral (Astrangia poculata), a species that inhabits coastal Atlantic waters along the entire East Coast.

“What we’re learning about the microbiome of the Northern Star Coral is that it is remarkably predictable, compared to most tropical corals. During the winter months, when the cold weather causes the coral to enter into a state of dormancy, we see a predictable change in the microbiome,” Sharp said. “We believe the seasonal shifts in the microbiome are key to understanding the coral’s ‘thermal resilience’ – the ability to survive the major temperature changes here in New England. Our work on the Northern Star Coral microbiome will help us determine how microbiomes can contribute to thermal resilience in corals. This will be valuable in our race to save tropical corals, which are not as resilient, and are now suffering due to human-induced climate change.”    

Her recent publication in AIMS Microbiology is a continuation of her previous studies on the Northern Star Coral’s microbiome, providing a broad picture of “who’s in there,” she said, which enabled her to develop “molecular probes” that can be used to image the animal under a microscope and determine where specific bacterial species live in the coral. Sharp is senior author of the research paper, “Stability of Temperate Coral Astrangia poculata Microbiome is Reflected Across Different Sequencing Methodologies,” along with co-authors Dawn B. Goldsmith (St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center, USGS), Zoe A. Pratte (Georgia Institute of Technology), Christina A. Kellogg (St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center, USGS), and Sara E. Snader (Cherokee Nation Technologies, contracted to USGS).

Northern Star Coral
Colonies of Northern Star Coral growing inside RWU's Wet Lab.

Sharp connected with her research team through the Astrangia Research Workshop, which she co-coordinates every year at RWU, bringing together some of the nation’s top coral reef scientists to spark new research and solutions on the impact of climate change on tropical reefs through the study of our local temperate corals. Collaborating with the team of scientists, Sharp co-designed the experiment and analyses of the microbiome.

For several years now, Sharp has been collecting Northern Star Coral samples off the coast of Fort Wetherill in Jamestown, R.I., and maintaining the colonies of silver dollar-sized bushy animals inside Roger Williams’s Wet Lab, where she leads a team of undergraduate student researchers on exploring the coral’s microbiome. She has also integrated her research on the Northern Star Coral into interdisciplinary coursework for biology, marine biology, environmental science and public health majors. Later this year, the public will get the chance to see this research at an exhibit under construction at the Rhode Island Audubon Center in Bristol, R.I., where Sharp and her students’ research will be showcased along with a display of our local coral.

Now that they know more about the bacterial communities that inhabit the Northern Star Coral, there’s more research yet to come. Sharp’s team of six undergraduate researchers are all working on independent research projects based on the recent data results, using the RWU Wet Lab and recently acquired advanced microscopy systems in the RWU Marine & Natural Sciences Building.