We study the charismatic and ecologically important symbiosis between coral and their intracellular algal symbionts. We focus on this particular symbiosis for two main reasons. First, it is a dramatic example of a beneficial endosymbiosis in animals. These types of interactions are poorly understood. Second, this symbiosis is critical for the survival of coral reefs, and its breakdown (or “coral bleaching”) due to anthropogenic stressors, including climate change, is leading to the global decline of coral ecosystems. The loss of these biodiversity hotspots is causing extensive economic and human health damage.
Despite the importance of this symbiosis, its molecular underpinnings are not well understood. This has been due primarily to the lack of tractable laboratory model systems and a lack of genetic tools. During the past several years, we have established genetic methods, such as morpholinos and CRISPR-Cas9, in both corals and a model system for coral biology, the symbiotic anemone Aiptasia. Our lab uses these new genetic tools and a combination of cellular, molecular, and developmental biology techniques to study symbiosis in both Aiptasia and reef-building corals.

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A Virtual Conversation with Coral Biologist Phil Cleves


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