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Hunting Coral Genes

August 19, 2012

I hope you still find my sleep habits fascinating. After dropping the second lander in Norfolk Canyon, the Nancy Foster steamed north towards Baltimore Canyon. During the night the seas got really smooth. I was expecting a 2:00 AM arrival at the first station, but I did not have any plans on getting up then. However, I woke up with that boat stopped feeling, looked at the iPhone, and it was 1:50 AM. I thought there would be lots of stars out, and I could help with the CTD. So I got dressed, donned hard hat and life preserver, and headed down the hallway, through the bulkhead, and out onto the deck.

It was dark and there was no one about. The boat was still moving, though not very fast. I took my orange juice and headed for the observation deck on the front of the boat below the bridge. The Milky Way looked grand, there was lightning on the horizon, and a star went shooting by. After half an hour Meg Kirkpatrick, the NOAA intern, came by on her hourly rounds, and let me know the show would start at 2:30 AM.

Today the ROV is down for its first dive, including a compass and buoyancy test, so the rest of the science crew is gearing up to get busy. I will be helping Dr. Katharine Coykendall, a marine biologist from the USGS lab in West Virginia. How is it that a lab in West Virginia is studying marine biology? The USGS lab there was collecting lots of samples for biodiversity studies, and when the Lophelia specimens started coming in, they started some studies on deep corals as well.

Dr. Coykendall, “Gene Hunter” in the ship’s wet lab. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

Dr. Katharine Coykendall, “Gene Hunter” in the ship’s wet lab. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

Dr. Coykendall grew up in Tennessee and always wanted to be a marine biologist. She talked her grade school classmates into adopting a manatee, twice! She studied marine science at the University of South Carolina, and studied genetics in graduate school at the University of California at Davis. Her thesis was “Genetic Effects of Hatchery Supplementation on Wild Populations of White Sea Bass.” She showed that the hatchery stock was not very genetically diverse, and the small numbers of remaining wild fish were in danger of having their remaining genetic diversity undermined by the large numbers of genetically uniform hatchery fish.

At Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Rutgers University, she worked with the giant tube worms found around hydrothermal vents, Riftia pachyptila. Her studies showed that genetically there are just three populations across their entire geographic range (roughly 7200km), one each above and below the equator and one near the Galapagos Islands on an ocean ridge offset from the east Pacific Rise. After a brief stint in a core DNA sequencing facility, she joined the USGS, where she works in the laboratory of Dr. Cheryl Morrison. One of her current interests is the squat lobster, Eumunida picta, which is often found in close association with Lophelia pertusa reefs.

A combative squat lobster; this little fellow got away.

A combative squat lobster; this little fellow got away. Image courtesy of Deepwater Canyons 2012 Expedition, NOAA-OER/BOEM.

She is also interested in building a library of all genes transcribed (aka a transcriptome) by the major cold water reef building coral in southeastern US waters, Lophelia pertusa. Once she has a baseline of gene expression, she can test how Lophelia responds transcriptionally (up regulate or down regulate) to certain genes known to respond to environmental stress from pollutants such as hydrocarbons and oil dispersants.  This research will aid in developing a bioassay to detect exposure to sublethal, toxic concentrations of these and other pollutants.

Paragorgia arborea, bubblegum coral. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

Paragorgia arborea, bubblegum coral. Photo by Eric Hanneman.

On this expedition she is collecting DNA from all the corals we find to enlarge and refine the coral family tree. You can read more about this at interesting work at

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