With 2015 now in the record books, a look back shows just how busy and…
Neil Blackstone’s lab on the fourth floor of Montgomery Hall is 800 miles from the nearest ocean, but he and his students are conducting research that is providing hope that one of the most serious problems affecting the Earth’s oceans can be overcome.
The phenomenon of coral bleaching (the severity of which is illustrated by recent headlines about Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) involves the death of coral (or rather the death of the symbiotic algae that feed them and give them their color) due to rising ocean temperatures.
“We discovered that when bleaching takes place, the algae don’t all die or leave. Some of them retreat further into the body of the coral and can reemerge if conditions improve,” says Blackstone.
Why did that discovery take place in a lab surrounded by corn rather than beaches? Because Blackstone and his students applied basic scientific principles.
“Studying actual reefs is important,” he says. “However, because reefs grow so slowly, field work must be complimented by a lab model system, and that is what we have developed,” he says.
Using soft corals, which grow much more quickly than hard corals, Blackstone and his students can examine the process much more quickly. It’s the same reason that scientists use fruit flies or yeast to study the basic principles of cell biology, he explains.
The work is important, says Blackstone, because coral reefs represent the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Their destruction would wipe out countless marine species which would not only impact world food supplies, but also could potentially wipe out the chance for major medical discoveries and other advancements.