Local researchers trying to unlock the secrets in coral

JAMESTOWN, R.I. (WPRI) —  Along the jagged, rocky coast of Jamestown is a coral known as Astrangia coral.

Local researchers are studying the coral, also known as “Northern Star coral,” which can be found anywhere from the Gulf of Mexico to Southern New England.

“It’s a good New England coral…it’s tough,” Koty Sharp of Roger Williams University said. “It can handle extreme cold weather. It can also handle the hot summers of New England. Tropical corals don’t handle temperature extremes as well as the Astrangia coral.”

Astrangia Coral Courtesy: Erin Borbee

Coral reef ecosystems support 25 percent of the ocean’s biodiversity, so it’s important that coral stays healthy. Sharp said they think our local coral has the potential to unlock a lot of secrets.

Coral reefs around the globe are suffering from a phenomenon called coral bleaching. This is when coral expels the algae living in its tissue when the temperatures are too warm. Sometimes coral can survive this, but quite often, the coral dies.

The researchers are studying the local coral and how coral bleaching could be prevented. They’re studying the biochemistry and the molecular biology behind why that coral/algae relationship gets disrupted when temperatures change.

Sharp said their hope is to, “respond and mitigate the loss of corals in a changing climate.”

The team is a collaboration between Roger Williams University, Boston University, Southern Connecticut University and University of Massachusetts Boston. Their study of temperature resiliency in Astrangia coral has been going on for several years.

Roger Williams University student studying local coral. Courtesy: Erin Borbee

The team placed tiles underwater off the Jamestown coast near Fort Wetherill several months ago. On Nov. 3, divers returned to the site to retrieve the tiles.

To the naked eye, they collected barnacles and other small organisms. Sharp said once her team of undergraduates at Roger Williams University puts the tiles under a microscope, they hope to find baby Astrangia coral.

Tile recovered by divers off the coast of Jamestown.

In addition to studying the coral bleaching process, they are learning about the earliest life stages of the coral.

Recently, they expanded their research to learn more about microplastics pollution, which is the slow break-down of plastics in the ocean.

“When that ends up in the ocean, it slowly breaks down, but it never disappears,” Sharp said. “So it turns into microscopic particles of plastic that stay suspended in the water.”

It’s estimated that there are 6,350 to 245,000 million metric tons of plastic in the world’s oceans. Anywhere from 4.8 to 12.7 million metric tons of new plastic enter the ocean each year.

“We’re seeing it in oysters, we’re seeing it in our local shellfish, and now our group has been finding it in our coral,” Sharp said. “Too much plastic can harm all marine life. With coral, once they ingest the microscopic plastic pieces, it stays in their gut. Like humans, if coral feels full, it’ll stop eating. Our goal is to raise awareness about microplastic pollution in the environment and to spread the word that it is affecting our ecosystem at every level. It’s not just something that disappears.”

The team of researchers hopes to start getting some results on their research in the next couple of months.