MechSE researchers explore new field of coral reef engineering

10/22/2018 Veronica Holloway

Written by Veronica Holloway

Amy Wagoner Johnson and Gabriel Juarez
Amy Wagoner Johnson and Gabriel Juarez
On a global scale, coral reefs critically impact food security, shoreline protection, biodiversity, tourism, and jobs—yet huge portions of the world’s major coral reef systems have not survived the last half century.

MechSE Professor Amy Wagoner Johnson, Assistant Professor Gabriel Juarez, and colleagues at Illinois and beyond, have received a National Science Foundation Convergent Research grant to work on coral reef recovery and propagation.

Convergent Research grants are given to deeply integrative teams of researchers studying to solve a societally compelling problem. Along with Wagoner Johnson and Juarez, the team includes Illinois’ Bruce Fouke (Department of Geology and Institute for Genomic Biology), San Diego State University’s Forest Rohwer, and Mark Vermeij and Kristen Marhaver from the CARMABI Research Station (Caribbean Marine Biological Institute, in Curacao). With expertise ranging from fluid dynamics to geobiology to coral reef science, the group is undeniably interdisciplinary, but the societal impact of their work also cannot be understated.

With 80 percent of the Caribbean and 20 percent of the Great Barrier Reefs’ corals lost during the last 50 years, the effect is more than just aesthetic. Not only does the disappearance of coral reefs severely limit the habitat for other ocean dwellers, but it greatly affects the stability of the lives and economies of shoreline communities. Despite biologists’ best efforts to repopulate the reefs, currently only two percent of lab-cultured coral larvae survive for more than two years once introduced into the environment.

“They’ve gotten really good at collecting the sperm and eggs and allowing them to come together to make larvae, and they can keep the larvae alive for some time in the lab,” said Wagoner Johnson. “The problem is that when they put them out in water they lose 98 percent, and so to make any progress it’s just mind-boggling what the effort would have to be.”

A significant issue for scientists introducing the larvae is its ability to settle when placed in the water. To counteract this, Juarez will quantify the swimming behavior of larvae in unsteady fluid environments, Wagoner Johnson is developing new materials to encourage larvae attachment, and the biologists are studying the response of the coral larvae to different materials and surfaces.

Once the materials are designed, tested, and incorporated into the propagation process, Fouke will analyze the health of the coral as it grows, in particular the coral skeleton. His expertise in geobiology and previous work with coral and similar structures allow him to assess the coral’s maturity and robustness throughout the growth process.

The material fabrication, sample processing, and data analysis is done at Illinois and San Diego State University, and all of the fieldwork is conducted at CARMABI. The team also uses a series of workshops to ensure group cohesiveness and to teach one another about their respective fields and offer training in the new methods.

The decrease of the coral mortality rate would be an incredible, impactful result for the research team, but that is not the only possible success of this project. The team is also at the forefront of establishing the new field of coral reef engineering—giving researchers everywhere the foundation to invest in reversing what our current climate has done to coral populations and even lead to solving problems in antifouling, agriculture, bone repair, ocean robotics, extreme environment exploration, and terraforming.

“In a lot of research nowadays you’re very specific, you carve out your own little hole,” said Juarez. “But to really be, perhaps, at the beginning of a new branch of engineering and science that can carry on beyond the three years or ten years and people will look back and say that the experiments our group did were crucial. It’s the beginning of really making a change, and when you look at it from that perspective it’s really exciting.”

Wagoner Johnson is currently looking for an undergraduate research assistant to work with the team on this project.

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This story was published October 22, 2018.