Corals Project Brings HMC Professor to International Team of Researchers

Catherine McFadden, professor of life sciences at Harvey Mudd, has joined an international team of researchers that recently received a four-year grant of $160,000 from the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation. Professors Robert Toonen of the University of Hawaii and Yehuda Benayahu of Tel Aviv University in Israel will work alongside McFadden, using the grant to study the Xeniidae species of corals in the Red Sea. This grant was motivated by the urgency of addressing unhealthy coral reefs in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Coral reefs in these two bodies of water are continually destroyed by “pollution, runoff from deforestation, and global warming,” said McFadden.Rising water temperatures caused by global warming result in what McFadden and her colleagues call “coral bleaching,” a process in which corals turn white. This color-change reflects the corals’ resistance to yellow-colored algae caused by stress brought on by higher water temperatures. Without algae, these corals lose nutrients and die.“Xeniidaes are ecological opportunists,” said McFadden, who compares this species of coral to invading weeds due to their ability to “take over reefs when [other corals] die,” and to inhibit the regeneration of those other species through domination of space on the reef.This invasion of the Xeniidae species is common among the coral reefs in the Indian Ocean, particularly in the Red Sea, which is a focus region for the team’s research.“[The team’s goal] is to first use genetic techniques to learn how to distinguish different species, and then be able to recognize them in the field,” said McFadden.The inability to classify the Xeniidae species in the field presents a challenge to the researchers, which the team will address by defining the coral family’s molecular makeup and creating what McFadden calls an “underwater guide” to identify it.The team hopes to limit and control coral destruction through an understanding of how the Xeniidae species benefits from other corals’ damage.McFadden will contribute her own expertise in coral gene-sequencing to the team. The roles of the other team members vary.Benayahu is responsible for collecting specimens, and will essentially be conducting the field work for the project, as well as using microscopy to gather anatomical data.McFadden and Toonen will then extract DNA to define the molecular makeup of the species. Additionally, Toonen will work with different types of marine organisms in hopes of finding new genes that may be useful in developing the DNA sequence of the Xeniidae species.The grant requires an exchange and collaboration between students at the three institutions. The second and third years of the project are designated time periods in which student researchers will travel to each institution. The student researchers include a Ph.D. student at Tel Aviv University assisting Benayahu, one graduate student from the University of Hawaii assisting Toonen, and two undergraduate students at Harvey Mudd assisting McFadden. The students have not been selected yet.McFadden said she feels the Coral Project aims to be a foundation for future collaboration between HMC and Tel Aviv University. She plans to travel with one of her research students to Tel Aviv University to assist in setting up a molecular lab at the university. The other student will travel to Hawaii to learn techniques for identifying new genes in marine species.“[This project will] give students [at HMC] the opportunity to be involved in major research and visit labs,” said McFadden.McFadden said opportunities to work with graduate students at large research universities rarely present themselves to students at the Claremont Colleges, but this project makes that opportunity available to them.“There are all kinds of cultural and scientific benefits of working with the Israeli [research assistant],” said McFadden, remarking on the expected visit of the Israeli student, who will come here to learn from the molecular lab on the HMC campus.This project complements McFadden’s work on another project known as the “Tree of Life,” a collaborative grant funding the work of six institutions in creating an evolutionary “tree” of DNA sequences found in all marine life, for which McFadden is contributing research on soft corals.

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