on September 1st, 2015 No Comments
I stopped by John Pringle’s office last week to hear about what he’s been up to. A lot! As we mentioned here a few months ago, Pringle, PhD, a professor of genetics who spent the first decades of his career studying yeast genetics and cell biology, has switched gears and is looking for ways to help corals — while continuing a lifetime of basic research.
Corals and the incredibly species-rich ecosystems they support are disappearing fast in nearly every part of the world’s oceans. Coral reefs protect coastlines, sustain rich fisheries and support some of the most species-rich habitats in the world. Yet, around the world, a third of all coral has died.
The first sign of stress is a fading, or “bleaching,” of the coral that reflects the loss of photosynthetic algae that live inside the coral. In a quest to understand the molecular underpinnings of bleaching in corals, Pringle and two colleagues at Stanford helped sequence the genome of a small sea anemone that serves as a model for corals. They report their work this week in PNAS.
I asked Pringle what they’d found. But first, he wanted to tell me about his colleagues Christian Voolstra, PhD, Sebastian Baumgarten, and others at the Red Sea Research Center, in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, where much of the experimental work and analysis took place. Pringle said the center is part of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, a six-year-old university with top researchers from around the world and a $20 billion endowment.
Although it’s easy to mistake coral for some kind of weird rock, corals are animals. But lab animals they are not. They grow slowly, in large colonies of tiny individuals, die easily and retreat inside their hard coral quarters when they aren’t happy.
A better option, Pringle learned, was a sea anemone called Aiptasia. Aiptasia is a pest that drives aquarium hobbyists to distraction. It thrives in captivity, takes over aquaria, and is seemingly impossible to eradicate — in short, the perfect lab animal.