A researcher based at James Cook University in Townsville has been awarded a Queensland Government Smart State Fellowship worth $150,000 to look at climate change and coral bleaching.
Dr Line Bay from the ARC Centre for Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, which is based at James Cook University, has received the Fellowship worth $50,000 a year for three years in the latest round of Smart State Innovation Funds.
Dr Line Bay receives Smart State Fellowship award from the Minister for State Development, Hon. John Mickel
Queensland Minister for State Development John Mickel said Dr Bay’s research could help not only find ways of protecting the Great Barrier Reef, but could have implications for global reef management,
Dr Bay is part of a collaborative team of scientists from James Cook University, Australian Institute of Marine Science and Danish Technical University and her Smart State Fellowship is co-sponsored by James Cook University and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, who have awarded matching funds.
Mr Mickel said that the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef was the world’s largest coral reef system, supporting a rich diversity of wildlife. In 2003 it was estimated that the reef generated over $4 billion annually in tourism, drawing about two million visitors a year.
He said global climate change, with rising sea temperatures, posed a significant threat to the reef because it increased the risk of mass coral bleaching.
All reef-building corals harbour microscopic algae called zooxanthellae that through photosynthesis supply the majority of the energy requirements of their coral hosts.
Coral bleaching occurs when the relationship between the zooxanthellae and the coral host breaks down.
“Many of the 400 species of coral on the reef are currently living on the edge of their temperature tolerance and are susceptible to coral bleaching,” Mr Mickel said.
“There was mass coral bleaching on the Barrier Reef in the summers of 1998, 2002 and 2006. And in 2002, reefs in Palau, the Seychelles and Okinawa suffered 70-90% bleaching. While most reef ecosystems recover to some degree, this can take up 20 years, and if, as predicted, by 2050 bleaching becomes an annual occurrence, then our reefs are in serious trouble.
“Dr Bay’s work will increase our understanding of the genetics of coral-zooxanthellae symbiosis and bleaching ” Mr Mickel said.
Dr Bay said that scientists knew that certain coral-zooxanthellae combinations could respond differently to increased temperatures, but currently had a limited understanding of the genetic processes underlying these differences.
“We will use microarray technology to examine gene expression, that is how genes are turned on and off in corals hosting different types of zooxanthellae under healthy and stressful conditions. Microarrays are a powerful technique that allows 1000s of genes to be examined simultaneously,” Dr Bay said.
She will also examine the capacity of corals to change their gene expression levels when environmental conditions change.
“This research will increase our understanding of the relative importance of acclimatisation and adaptation in producing the variation in thermal tolerance that we observe among corals” Dr Bay said.
She said she hoped the research would lead not only to a greater understanding of coral-zooxanthellae symbiosis, but that it could lead to the identification of coral populations or species that were more tolerant to higher temperatures.
“If we can work that out, then we can look at ways of managing those more resilient corals as a way to preserve healthy coral reefs in the face of global climate change.”
The Smart State Fellowships are part of the Queensland Government’s $200 million Smart State Innovation Funding Program, which aims to build world-class research facilities, attract top-quality scientists to Queensland and stimulate cutting-edge research projects.
Dr Line Bay: +61 7 4781 5979, mobile +61 0402 499 667.
JCU Media Liaison, Jim O’Brien +61 7 4781 4822 or +61 0418 892449