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Hopkins iGEM 2021

Symbiotic Bacterium Engineering for Treatment of Coral Disease

Corals, the ecosystem engineer of extremely biodiverse coral reefs, are threatened by human activity as they are the victims of rising ocean temperatures and habitat destruction. Changes to their ecosystem may increase the susceptibility of corals to pathogens.

Several marine pathogens are not well characterized, but the aspergillus sydowii fungus, which causes the aspergillosis disease, has been since it closely resembles the landborne aspergillus fungus that infects humans.

This fungus can cause the “localized mass mortality” (Kim and Rypien) of sea fans (Gorgonia ventalina) in coral populations that have not already encountered the fungus.

Florida is the U.S. state with the most extensive coral reef ecosystem.

The Florida coral reefs support the local tourism and seafood industries, and NOAA estimates their economic contribution to total an asset value of about $8.5 billion per year.

The architects of Florida’s coral reefs are stony corals, which provide the reef’s shape and structure. Since 2014, the stony corals in Florida have been attacked by the aggressive stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD).

Our project investigated a method to assist the a specific coral species, the sea fan (Gorgonia ventalina), with fighting off the aspergillus sydowii fungus, while minimizing our solution’s impact on other aspects of the ecosystem.

Sea fans are a soft coral, which do not provide structure to the reef system but provides shelter for other organisms in the coral reef.

SCTLD’s cause is not well characterized enough to determine a specific synthetic biology response, but certain treatments have been shown to be effective.

We met with researchers involved in Florida’s coral reef conservation program to determine how the delivery and containment methods we were researching could be translated to contribute to the current fight against SCTLD.

Our team in action!

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