June 24, 2009

Aglow in the Dark

Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Science at CUNY, Baruch College and Reseach Associate, American Museum of Natural History

LITTLE CAYMAN, Cayman Islands | Three years ago, Dr. Carrie Manfrino, a marine geologist and ecologist, established the Central Caribbean Marine Institute on Little Cayman, a Caribbean island 150 miles south of Cuba with a permanent human population of fewer than 180. The institute has provided a setting where scientists could launch studies on the coral reef and provide baseline data on the health of its main communities: iguanas, hermit crabs and red-footed boobies.

The island is surrounded by turquoise water that harbors one of the most pristine coral reefs in the region. In mid-June, I arrived here to study the reefs with Carrie Manfrino and a team of scientists and technical deep divers. Much is known about shallow tropical reefs, but below 120 feet, coral reefs are largely unexplored. Over the next few weeks I will be using a remotely operated vehicle, equipped with a high-definition camera to take video transects down to 600 feet. This data will then be analyzed with point-count software to provide a baseline of the biological coverage and health of one of the Caribbean’s most pristine reefs.

I’ve assembled a team of extended-range scuba divers who will take small samples of coral which will be used for genetic analysis –especially to determine if there is gene flow from deep to shallow coral, or vice versa. Shallow reefs are quite threatened, and I would like to determine the connection between them and the deep reef. Specifically, I will explore my hypothesis that the lesser disturbed deeper reefs are re-seeding the shallow reefs.

In addition, I will be looking at the gene expression of fluorescent proteins in corals with depth. Fluorescent proteins have been a passion of mine since a 2002 expedition to the Great Barrier Reef, while I was still a graduate student. In that expedition, I teamed up with medical researchers from the Yale University School of Medicine to discover novel fluorescent proteins for neurological research. We cloned about 25 new fluorescent proteins that are currently in development. I was so fascinated with the history of fluorescent proteins (found mainly in a specific group of marine organisms) that I co-wrote a book on the topic in 2005: Aglow in the Dark: The Revolutionary Science of Biofluorescence” (Harvard University Press). Its main characters were awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery and application of green fluorescent protein. After completing my PhD in 2007 in Biological Oceanography, I spent a year at Brown University’s Division of Biology and Medicine working to transform these proteins into useful biological tools.

Fluorescent proteins have transformed modern biological research and allow scientists to witness, in vivo, biological processes taking place inside cells. There are currently many colors of fluorescent proteins in use, but there are still limitations. For instance, the light emitted by red fluorescent proteins penetrates deeper into cells than green fluorescent proteins, but the red fluorescent protein is not as robust as its green counterpart. Last year, we built an underwater device (with military-grade light intensifying equipment) that seeks fluorescent proteins that fluoresce in the infra-red (outside the range of detection by the unaided eye). If such a protein were found, it would allow scientists to watch, unobtrusively, processes deep inside cells. I will also be using this device at night on dives in Little Cayman.

Besides Carrie, I’m working here with two other colleagues: Rick Riera-Gomez, the scientific diving officer for the University of Miami/RSMAS, and Casey Coy, the director of diving operations at The Florida Aquarium. Rick and Casey bring some of the most advanced technical scuba diving expertise to the expedition. Over the next five days, we will be descending to depths of 300 feet to study part of an ecosystem that is rarely seen by human eyes–the deep reef.