Holi festival 2013. Photo by Olivia Drake MALS ’08.

Gignoux-Wolfsohn ’10 investigates a devastating coral disease

[Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn '10] By Caroline MacNeille '16

Marine science doctoral candidate Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn '10 and Felicia Aronson are trying to figure out what's killing 95% of the Carribbean coral. Working together in Steve Vollmer's lab at Northeastern University, they have crowdsourced $6,300 for their research. They hope to isolate the pathogen responsible for white-band disease and help preserve a fragile ecosystem.

"Working in the Caribbean, I have witnessed the decline of coral reefs and how important these reefs are for both local inhabitants and visitors," says Sarah on Experiment, a crowdfunding site. "I believe strongly that more research needs to be done on why these ecosystems are dying and how we can help prevent their extinction."

Here's what we know about white-band disease: It has already killed up to 95 percent of the Caribbean's reef-building elkhorn and staghorn corals, and it's caused by an infectious bacteria that seems to be transmitted through the water and by coral-eating snails. Here's what we don't know: everything else.

But two student-researchers working in Northeastern associate professor of marine and environmental science Steve Vollmer's lab are trying to change that: Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn, a fourth-year doctoral candidate, and undergraduate Felicia Aronson, S'16, an environmental science major with a concentration in marine science. Together, they are using the resources they raised from a crowdfunding science campaign to figure out what's killing the Caribbean corals.

...they're using those tools to understand how the diseased coral community is different from the healthy community in ways that haven't been possible before. The approach is somewhat novel in the field of marine ecology, Gignoux-Wolfsohn said, and it's part of why she's doing it. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, she studied blood-vessel formation using genetic-based techniques. "I wanted to take those skills and apply them to a more conservation and ecology based research program," she explained.

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