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SPCMSC Research Microbiologist Christina Kellogg and Research Marine Biologist James Evans are participating in a collaborative experiment with scientists at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) and other academic colleagues to identify the microbial group associated with SCTLD causation.

two photos of same coral. Left coral mostly covered in live tissue, with dead section. Right photo: dead coral covered in algae
The Florida Keys reefs have been experiencing a severe disease outbreak from 2014 to present called Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD). Depicted here are two photographs of the same coral colony of symmetrical brain coral, Pseudodiploria strigosa, that was infected by the disease in April 2015 (left photo) and completely dead by April 2016 (right photo). One of the signatures of this disease is the speed at which most corals are consumed by it; a coral can go from apparently healthy to one-hundred percent mortality in a few weeks. The photographs were taken during USGS research in Biscayne National Park at Fowey Rocks reef under scientific collection permits BISC-2015-SCI-0003 and BISC-2016-SCI-0003 issued to Ilsa B. Kuffner. 

SCTLD is a devastating disease of corals that has been decimating reefs throughout Florida and the wider Caribbean for the past eight years, yet to date the causative agent remains unknown. USGS researchers Kellogg and Evans are lending expertise to a massive collaborative effort designed to help narrow the list of possible suspect pathogens. Applying a USGS-developed method (linked below), the experiment uses healthy and SCTLD-infected corals within individual mesocosms to acquire normal and disease-associated microbial communities. These microbes are then concentrated via tangential flow filtration, and subsequently sorted into major taxonomic groups (such as bacteria, viruses, and microeukaryotes) using different-sized filters. These filters are then applied to healthy corals to determine which group transmits SCTLD. Kellogg and Evans traveled to Miami in early September to assist with the experiment, and corals are now being monitored by collaborators for the onset of disease symptoms. NOAA AOML scientists intend to perform full-omics sequencing of those filters that successfully transmit disease, which in conjunction with samples preserved for histology and transmission electron microscopy, may help identify the causative agent behind this highly destructive disease.

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