Dr. Ruth D. Gates is a Research Professor at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, a research unit embedded in the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Her overarching goal is to contribute basic and applied scientific knowledge that expands understanding of how coral reefs function, and informs the conservation and management of coral reef ecosystems in the face of climate change and local anthropogenic activities. Her research focuses on the mechanisms by which reef corals sense and respond to changes in the marine environment. Her work is contextualized by the innate variability in the way in which corals respond to stress, which is exemplified by the fact that some corals survive, and even thrive in conditions that rapidly kill others. Dr. Gates and her group seek to better understand the biological underpinnings of this variability by defining biological and ecological traits that associate with environmental thresholds in corals, and with stability and resilience of reefs. Much of her recent work has examined how the genetic composition and nature of the association between corals and endosymbiotic dinoflagellates map onto the function and environmental tolerance of corals. Her work crosses a variety of spatial scales (molecules, cells, tissues, colony, community, reef) and draws on tools from the fields of molecular genetics, functional genomics, metabolomics, bioinformatics, histology, cell biology, biochemistry, physiology and ecology.
The accumulating data strongly suggest that the fate of reef-building corals, in a world increasingly affected by climate change, will be determined in part, by the nature and composition of endosymbionts dinoflagellate (Symbiodinium sp.) communities hosted by corals and the functional diversity afforded by flexibility in these associations. Progress has been made in describing the distribution of Symbiodinium genotypes over space and time, as well as linking functional attributes such as thermal tolerance in specific Symbiodinium genotypes. This research suggests that the capacity to change the taxonomic composition of symbionts can be beneficial and acts as a potential mechanism for corals to adapt to climate change (i.e., Adaptive Bleaching Hypothesis). In this seminar, I present the research underway in my group on patterns in Symbiodinium diversity in corals and reef environments, and discuss the environmental thresholds of coral holobionts in the context of this diversity.