Challenges in Coral Reef Research and Conservation: Robotics and Autonomous Sampling to the Rescue?


Coral reef ecosystems contribute ~$30 billion USD annually to the global economy and harbor 1/4 of all known marine species. However, human activities have driven the loss of 50% of the world’s reefs over the last 30 years, and 90% of remaining reefs are predicted to be threatened by 2030. Thus, there is an urgent need for human interventions to support reef resilience to warming seas, overharvesting and pollution. Various studies have documented the influence of microbial symbionts on host physiology, demonstrated that some hosts are relatively mutable in the symbionts they harbor, and shown that symbionts can shift under stress. The large population sizes and short generation times of microorganisms allow them to rapidly evolve traits such as heat tolerance. Furthermore, trophic interactions between corals and their predators may facilitate the dispersal of microbial symbionts to prospective hosts across reefs. Over the last five years, my research group has sought creative ways to leverage beneficial microbial symbionts (e.g., dinoflagellates in the family Symbiodiniaceae, bacteria) and trophic interactions to improve coral colony and reef health. This talk will describe these efforts and associated challenges, as well as identify areas where robotics and autonomous sampling may offer solutions.



Adrienne Correa, Ph.D., earned her bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Michigan and completed her M.A. in conservation biology and her Ph.D. in ecology and evolution at Columbia University in New York. Her work focused on the response of a foundational marine symbiosis-stony corals and their dinoflagellate algae (Family Symbiodiniaceae)-to environmental change. As a postdoc, Correa tested the roles of viruses in coral colonies, specializing in viruses that infect Symbiodiniaceae.

After 5 years in a primarily teaching-focused role, Correa started as an assistant professor in the Biosciences department at Rice University in Houston, Texas (USA) in 2017. Her lab's current research bridges micro and macroscopic realms to aid coral reef ecosystems in surviving climate change and disease. Her group also recently received a NSF CAREER award to study the roles of consumers in dispersing the microbial symbionts of their resource species. In addition, Correa was a fellow of the Kavli Frontiers of Science and a National Academy of Sciences Gulf Coast Research Program Early-Career fellow.