Asst. Prof. Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn is Helping Develop Probiotic for Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease

Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn Image by Courtesy
Asst. Prof. Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn surveys healthy corals in Little Cayman, Cayman Islands.

By Brooke Coupal

Below the clear blue waters surrounding the Colombian island of San Andrés, coral is under attack.

For the past year, stony coral tissue loss disease has plagued the area, causing a roughly 25% decline in coral cover, according to Biological Sciences Asst. Prof. Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn. The disease, whose cause remains unknown, was first reported off the coast of Florida in 2014 and has since spread throughout the Caribbean.

“This disease is a very detrimental problem, specifically for corals in the Caribbean, where it’s rapidly causing mass mortality,” she says.

Gignoux-Wolfsohn and a team of researchers are working to develop a probiotic treatment to help protect corals from stony coral tissue loss disease. The Coral Research & Development Accelerator Platform awarded the researchers a grant of roughly $1.5 million for the project, with $323,000 going to UMass Lowell.

“In a lot of places, people have been treating corals with antibiotics once they get the disease, which is not an ideal solution because you’re only treating them once they show disease signs,” Gignoux-Wolfsohn says. “The idea with probiotics is that we could treat corals before they’re exposed to the disease and hopefully make them healthier.”

Corals are invertebrates belonging to the same family as jellyfish and sea anemones. Those affected by stony coral tissue loss disease develop lesions, resulting in tissue loss. The lesions spread across the coral’s surface until no living tissue remains. 

Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn coral Image by Courtesy
A diseased coral in Carrie Bow Cay, Belize.

Diving off the coast of San Andrés, the researchers will search for healthy corals among those infected by the disease and collect fragments to bring back to Gignoux-Wolfsohn’s lab. There, she will investigate what bacteria are abundant on the corals that are resisting the disease.

“Any bacteria that is naturally more abundant might be helping those corals survive,” she says.

Gignoux-Wolfsohn’s findings will be provided to her collaborator at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Asst. Prof. Blake Ushijima, who will develop a probiotic using the bacteria found on the healthy corals.

In partnership with the Perry Institute of Marine Science, the Blue Indigo Foundation, CORALINA (the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Archipelago of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina) and the ECOMARES Foundation, the researchers plan to apply the probiotic to corals to see if it protects the corals from the disease.

Gignoux-Wolfsohn says preventing stony coral tissue loss disease is crucial, especially as ocean temperatures rise as a result of climate change.

“Climate change is clearly making the corals more stressed, and when the corals are more stressed, they are more susceptible to disease,” she says.

Warmer water temperatures have led to mass die-offs of coral, including off the coast of the Florida Keys, where the Coral Restoration Foundation reported “100% coral mortality” at Sombrero Reef in July. This is problematic, as corals serve as a habitat and feeding ground for more than a million aquatic species. Corals also protect coastlines from storms by acting as a buffer.

“Corals are the base of a whole ecosystem and must be protected,” Gignoux-Wolfsohn says.