Price to study fungal disease in reef-building algae

6-23-2016

This summer, Senior Research Scientist Dr. Nichole Price is expanding her research on coralline algae to study the fungal diseases that infect them. Coralline algae are highly sensitive seaweeds known to help re-establish coral reefs. Fungal infections in the crusts of these beneficial algae are more prevalent as seawater temperature rises. The disease can kill whole crusts as the fungal infection spreads. Price’s work will look at the impact of global changes, including ocean acidification and warming, on coralline algae in combination with disease dynamics. She hopes to elucidate the extent to which global changes might accelerate the spread of fungal infections in the algae.

Price notes, “Traditionally, investigations have largely focused on one global change problem at a time, and rarely explore the complexity introduced when combinations of stressors impact a marine ecosystem-- a reality most coral reefs face. This work aims to increase understanding of the mechanisms underlying fungal infection spread among coralline algae and its connection to both warming and acidification.”

The El Niño of 2015-2016 makes this a particularly important time to look at the intersections of climate change and disease on these algae, as disease occurrence peaks in warmer water. Currently, coral reefs and coralline algae are suffering from catastrophic effects of the El Niño. Severe bleaching has occurred, in which the loss of symbiotic microscopic algae (that gives corals color or pigments in coralline algae) makes reefs appear bleached white. The concurrence of increased temperature and acidity in future decades will further restrict the ability of calcium-containing corals and coralline algae to build their skeletons. The combination will also cause more drastic and different impacts on coral and coralline populations than would be expected by either global calamity alone.

This summer, Price will be conducting fieldwork among the reefs in the Central Pacific at Palmyra Atoll. Along with Postdoctoral Researcher Dr. Ben Neal, and Research Technician Brittney Honisch, Price's team will work to better grasp the connections between fungal disease spread and global climate changes.