We are pursuing research on different aspects of the biology of coral reef ecosystems using a combination of field and laboratory approaches. We aim to understand, at the cellular level, the overall ecology of the coral holobiont (the coral host and its symbionts – algal, prokaryotic, eukaryotic), and how it responds to its environment.

Coral-algal symbiosis

Coral reefs are benthic communities that survive near their homeostatic threshold. A healthy symbiosis between scleractinian corals and their intracellular photosynthetic dinoflagellates (Symbiodiniaceae) is central to a healthy reef. We study the onset and breakdown (i.e., bleaching) of symbiosis in multiple cnidarian systems such as scleractinian corals and the Upside-down Jellyfish Cassiopea xamachana.

Ecological speciation in corals

The three members of the Orbicella species complex coexist in most Caribbean reefs along a depth gradient. and O. annularis is mostly found in shallow environments and O. franksi is predominant in deeper areas (down to 50 m), whereas O. faveolata can span the whole range from shallow to deep. We are using whole genome sequencing to examine the evolutionary history of these three important reef-building species. We are also examining spawning behavior through transcriptome analysis across the three species.

The microbial community in the holobiont

We are part of the Global Coral Microbiome Project where we contribute to our understanding of coral- and Symbiodiniaceae-associated microbiomes. We use amplicon-based next-generation sequencing to examine microbial diversity in different holobionts as well as metagenomics and metatranscriptomics to shed light on the functional role microbes may have in metabolic complementarity.

Cassiopea xamachana as a cnidarian model system

We have been developing the Upside-down Jellyfish as a model system to investigate the cnidarian holobiont in the lab. C. xamachana also harbors the same photosymbionts as corals, making it a suitable comparative system. The onset of symbiosis triggers strobilation, a developmental transition, enabling the study of cnidarian development in the context of symbiosis. We are also exploring the regenerative capabilities of this organism with and without its symbiotic algae.

Reef conservation/restoration

Since 2014, we have been investigating a turbid reef (Varadero) in the Colombian Caribbean that was threatened by dredging. Our research findings combined with the voices of local scientists and activists contributed to the protection of the reef. We now engage in participatory research and conservation efforts in the region, as well as reef restoration.

We invite you to look into our Story of Varadero page!