UT Arlington lab dives into coral reef research

With a new federal grant, scientists at the University of Texas at Arlington are exploring new ways to protect coral reefs from disease.

Dr. Laura Mydlarz, an associate professor of biology, and her students are diving into a new, two-year study of coral reefs with help from scientists in Florida and the Caribbean.

“Coral reefs are such a biodiverse ecosystem,” Dr. Mydlarz said. “They're so beautiful, so colorful.”

Coral reefs are so diverse, they are known as "rainforests of the sea."

Dr. Mydlarz's study focuses on coral reef immunity, specifically, why some corals get sick under stress and others don’t.

“Much like a college students when they're going through exams and they tend to get really stressed out about their grades, a lot of them get sick,” Dr. Mydlarz explained. “It's the same thing with corals.”

Coral disease can cause entire reefs to collapse.

“What we've seen recently is that water temperature in areas around coral reefs is just one degree above average and when it stays one degree above average for about two months, the coral reefs get really stressed out,” Dr. Mydlarz explained.

More than two thousand miles from Dr. Mydlarz’s landlocked lab in Arlington are the warm, clear waters of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Dr. Mydlarz travels to Brewer's Reef to conduct field research and collect samples to bring back to Texas.

The study focuses on 7 to 10 species of corals.

“We do bring them back frozen so that we preserve all the genes and the proteins,” Dr. Mydlarz said.

Undergraduate and graduate students at UT Arlington prepare and analyze samples. Proteins and gene sequences are extracted in the lab and computer modeling tracks how specific corals respond to diseases and nutrients.

Laboratories in Hawaii and Florida are already trying to restore damaged reefs. Dr. Mydlarz hopes her research will help other scientists grow and plant corals that are more likely to survive.

But, it’s not just ocean life at risk.

Corals provide a lot to humankind, according to Dr. Mydlarz.

“They are nurseries for a lot of the fish that we eat, so they provide food source,” she said. “They also help to pull carbon from the atmosphere, so they are carbon tanks. They also help protect shorelines from waves and erosion, so the structure of the reef can protect against a tsunami for example."

The two-year project is funded by a $220,331 federal grant from the National Science Foundation.

Dr. Mydlarz believes coral reefs are among America's finest natural wonders.

“We need to protect these reefs, especially the ones in U.S. territories like the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Florida and Hawaii,” she said. “These are our national treasures and we need to protect them.”

Dr. Mydlarz and her students will be displaying their corals and sharing their knowledge with the public at Earth Day Texas April 21-23. The three-day festival runs Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. at Fair Park in Dallas.

(All underwater video are courtesy of Howard Forbes Jr. and Jarvon Stout. All still photos are courtesy Marilyn Brandt.)