jack c koch
scientist | creator | educator
Give an elevator pitch of what your research/project is about.
Corals are animals that build the foundation of the beautiful reef structures seen around the world. Reefs provide habitat, shelter, and nursery space for many organisms including commercially important fishes and other invertebrates, and they provide coastal protection for land they surround. Reefs are also economically important as they provide billions of dollars in revenue through industries such as tourism, fishing, and recreation. These reef structures would not be possible without the help of microalgae that live inside the corals creating a symbiotic relationship. Symbiosis is no easy feat and is quite fragile. In fact, global climate change is destroying the symbiotic relationship between corals and their microalgae and causing corals to rapidly decline, therefore making them difficult to study. Some labs have turned to other symbiotic cnidarians, like sea anemones, as models in order to better understand some of the symbiotic processes that climate change is affecting in corals. In these symbiotic relationships, photosynthetic algae live deep within host tissue, restricting the algae from vital ingredients for photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is important to both the host and the symbiont as it provides resources required for growth and reproduction. If photosynthesis stops, the symbiosis breaks down, and the partners may die. To maintain the rate of photosynthesis and sugar production, sea anemones and corals use the enzyme carbonic anhydrase to increase the rate at which photosynthetic ingredients are moved from the seawater to algal photosynthetic centers. Symbiosis and environmental conditions can influence the need for carbonic anhydrase based on how photosynthetically efficient and active the algae are and affect the availability of free photosynthesis ingredients in the seawater. My research explores changes in carbonic anhydrase so that we can better understand symbiotic relationships and environmental changes.
Why is this research/project important and timely?
The intertidal zone ecosystem, where my study organism Anthopleura elegantissima lives, supports a diverse, highly productive assemblage of marine and terrestrial organisms by providing food, habitat, and nursery space. Studying organism that call this environment home can provide unique insight into physiological and morphological adaptations to survive in such extreme conditions brought on by the pounding surf, diverse microenvironments, and intense temperature changes due to tidal fluctuations. Given the observed and predicted changes to the oceans and the Earth’s climate, I predict that Anthopleura elegantissima will become a more dominant member of the intertidal zone ecosystem in which it resides. With this potential, it is important to gain a firm understanding of the physiological and morphological mechanisms used to survive in a changing environment. My work will provide insight into this important symbiotic relationship, which will aid in predicting how other symbiotic organisms will adapt to changing oceans.
What is the broader impact and implication of your findings?
Anthopleura elegantissima is one of a few species of sea anemone that can join in symbiosis with microalgae from distantly related lineages – a dinoflagellate and a green alga. Studies examining differences in symbiosis when the sea anemone is with each partner may provide clues into how one host joins in symbiosis with multiple partners and how multiple partners manage to colonize a single host. By studying morphological, physiological, and genomic differences I hope to apply my findings to other systems like coral-microalgae symbioses.
How did you come to work in this field/project?
As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) I was interested in studying coral reefs. The thought of diving on beautiful Indo-Pacific and Caribbean reefs was a dream and I became very interested in the symbiotic relationship between the coral and its microalgae. After volunteering for a few months in Dr. Michael McCartney’s lab I reached out to Dr. Joseph Pawlik (http://people.uncw.edu/pawlikj/). Joe’s primary focus is on the chemical defence and ecology of Caribbean reef sponges, but he is also knowledgeable about many other invertebrates. During our first meeting he made it clear that corals weren’t the best option to work with on campus, but that Aiptasia, a symbiotic sea anemone, might be a better and more cost-effective choice. I spent the next few days reading all about Aiptasia. Over the course of the next few weeks, Joe and I came up with a project idea that I could complete as part of a directed-independent study. Long story short, I feel in love with that charismatic little sea anemone and its millions of dinoflagellates.
During my second year working with Joe, he suggested that I take coursework at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs (FHL) and the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences. That summer was a blast; I travelled to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where I got to live my dream of swimming with tropical corals and then I travelled across the United States to the Pacific Northwest where I learned about a whole new world – the rocky intertidal zone. While at FHL I studied the symbiotic sea anemone Anthopleura elegantissima, the aggregating sea anemone. One of the interesting aspects of this anemone is that it comes in three flavors: chocolate, vanilla, and pistachio! (NOTE: Do not eat sea anemones!) These anemones do not actually taste like these flavors, but they do resemble the colors associated with these flavors: chocolates (browns) host primarily dinoflagellates, just like Aiptasia; vanillas (whites) have very few or no algal symbionts; and pistachios (greens) host primarily green algae! That summer at FHL shifted my focus from the small tropical Aiptasia to the larger temperate Anthopleura.
Back at UNCW I completed my honors thesis examining how symbiotic state and nutrition affect growth of Aiptasia. I was interested in going to graduate school and knew that I wanted to continue studying symbiotic sea anemones. There was no better place than Dr. Virginia Weis’s lab at Oregon State University. Virginia studies Aiptasia and Anthopleura! Soon after arriving to her lab I was lucky enough to be awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. This award, a few others, and Virginia’s support provided me with the resources to choose the research path I wanted to take. I am currently working on projects examining carbonic anhydrase in A. elegantissima, genomics of the symbiotic green algae (Elliptochloris marina), and the effects of ocean acidification on A. elegantissima. This journey to where I am now would not have been possible without the support from all of my professors and friends from UNCW and OSU, and my friends and family.
What is your top graduate school life hack or survival resource?
Eight hours of sleep every night, exercise daily, eat well, laugh often, and surround yourself with people who encourage and support you.