Additional Participants

Senior Personnel

Charles Trick
Walt Dunlap

Organizational Partners

University of Western Ontario

Project Period

June 1, 2010-May 31, 2011

Level of Access

Open-Access Report

Grant Number


Submission Date



Intellectual Merit. Coral bleaching has increased dramatically in frequency, severity, and geographic extent since the 1980's and this trend is anticipated to continue, causing major environmental and economic impacts in tropical regions. This bleaching, or loss by corals of their photosynthetic endosymbiotic dinoflagellates (zooxanthellae; Symbiodinium spp.), appears to result from increased oxidative stress arising from the combined effects of elevated temperature at high light intensities. However, the mechanisms underlying this failure are not understood. The premise of the PIs' current project entitled "Effects of Trace Metal Limitation on Oxidative Stress in Zooxanthellae and Its Role in Coral Bleaching" (OCE - 0648478) is that the necessary up-regulation of zooxanthellae antioxidant defenses is restricted by low concentrations of dissolved Fe, Zn and Cu; metals essential for antioxidant enzyme function (Cu, Zn-, Mn-, and Fe-SOD; catalase [Fe]; ascorbate peroxidase [Fe]). Findings from their laboratory and field manipulation experiments show that restricting Fe, and Cu/Zn availability to coral hosts under high (but not low) temperature and light intensity indeed can significantly decrease both photosynthetic efficiency of symbionts in-hospite and ROS enzyme activities, while increasing non-photosynthetic quenching of their photosystems; each indicators of the onset of bleaching conditions. However, although there is high integrity within each experiment, they have found this pattern is not consistent with all coral colonies. Based on limited sampling, it appears that corals collected from the outer shelf region normally (but not always) display indications of oxidative stress under conditions of decreased metal availability, while those collected nearshore, or maintained in coastally-derived flowing seawater (where dissolved metal concentrations are higher), often show little discernable effect. Excess metal uptake and storage is well described in the marine phytoplankton literature, which suggests that the history of the coral metal exposure is a critical factor, both with respect to our experiments as well as to the distribution of coral bleaching observed. The PIs have an unique and unforeseen opportunity to test this hypothesis by joining an Australian Institute for Marine Sciences research cruise to Flinders Reef; an offshore atoll in the Coral Sea that is substantially more distant from sporadic terrestrial metal inputs that our previous study sites. They will participate in this cruise to run on-deck incubations testing the effect of reduced and marginally elevated Fe, Cu, Zn and Mn concentrations on coral photosynthetic efficiency, ROS enzyme activities, symbiont pigment composition, and ROS enzyme and other gene expression. This geographical site will provide the ideal test site for verifying their findings of metal effects on oxidative stress in zooxanthellae, and identify some of the key mechanisms and nutritional factors contributing to the increasingly frequent and severe coral bleaching events in tropical waters.

Broader Impacts: This project will provide a unique research opportunity for two graduate students and a junior female Ph.D. scientist, who will use aspects of the work for their thesis and career development. The research addresses the fundamental unknowns of the controls of coral bleaching, one of the leading threats to marine biodiversity and economic stability of tropical nations. The findings will provide a key test of laboratory- and field-developed hypotheses of the role of trace metal limitation as a contributor to oxidative stress of zooxanthellae and their coral hosts; a precursor to coral bleaching. A modular series of lectures and demonstrations targeting both upper K-12 and undergraduates will be developed and will be incorporated into existing outreach programs and undergraduate courses in Marine Science at the University of Maine. The phototrophic symbiosis between zooxanthellae and corals, and its disruption by physical environmental factors, provides an inherently powerful case study for the integration of chemistry, physics, and biology that will illustrate to marine science undergraduates the need for rigorous training in the quantitative physical sciences. The findings will provide key insights to the factors that influence the severity of bleaching events, and possibly suggest realistic mitigation strategies to minimize bleaching events in localized environmentally or economically sensitive regions.

Included in

Oceanography Commons