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Virginia Weis standing in lab

Conserving coral reefs: Marine biologist receives coral society’s highest honor

By Mary Hare

Congratulations to Virginia Weis, University Distinguished Professor of Integrative Biology, for receiving the Eminence in Research Award from the International Coral Reef Society. The most prestigious award in this discipline, it is given annually to a scientist with more than 25 years of post-Ph.D. research in the field.

For more than two decades, Weis has focused on the symbiotic association between corals and the algae they harbor within their cells, known as zooxanthellae that live inside the corals and provide them with energy as well as their vibrant color.

Corals are particularly sensitive to changes in temperature. Climate change-induced spikes in global ocean temperatures cause corals to lose their zooxanthellae, which leads to starvation and often death. At extreme temperatures, distressed corals may die immediately, leaving a white skeleton barren of the nutrients the reef ecosystems depend on, a phenomenon known as coral bleaching.

In her laboratory, Weis and her graduate students closely examine the molecular partnership between corals and algae, their communication and signaling patterns that regulate the symbiosis, and how a breakdown in that partnership results under conditions of stress induced by heat and environmental pollution.

Yet corals are slow-growing in the lab and difficult to obtain because of their endangered status in many locations. To solve this challenge, Weis helped pioneer a new approach to study corals effectively and on a larger scale by using the sea anemone Aiptasia (Exaiptasia diaphna) as a model. Aiptasia engages in a symbiosis with algae just like corals but can survive better than corals in a lab.

One distinguished nominee said that without Weis’s work, the field of coral research “would probably be 10 years back in our understanding of bleaching and the coral-Symbiodiniaceae symbiosis.”  

sea anemone Aiptasia sitting on rock
The sea anemone Aiptasia is a genus of cnidarian that can be used to model corals due to their biological similarities. Widely distributed around the globe, from mangrove forests to pests in your aquarium, they are much cheaper and durable for lab research than their coral relatives. 

Weis and her team are pushing the frontiers of genome science by uncovering the genetic basis of coral biology. Supported by a $2 million NSF EDGE award, her research focuses on developing genomic and gene editing techniques in both symbiotic partners to be able to test hypotheses about the involvement of specific genes in coral health and stress. The long-term goal would be to provide the tools for engineering corals that are more resilient to bleaching.

As a second pathway to coral conservation, Weis is attempting to build a cutting-edge enterprise that develops tools for cryo-preservation and for creating repositories of eggs and sperm of corals to preserve their genetic diversity and save them from possible extinction.

“I am working hard to help bring leadership and consensus to the challenge of building coral repositories. This is so that when humans get their act together and we bring the temperature back down on the planet, then we could scale the reproduction of corals and try to build reefs up again,” Weis said.

Weis has racked up numerous accolades throughout her career, including the Dr. Russ and Dolores Gorman Faculty Scholar endowed professorship, the College’s Milton Harris Award in Basic Research and the Fredrick H. Horne Award for sustained excellence in teaching science. In the past ten years, she has received grants totaling more than $5.6 million US dollars, with additional funds from New Zealand.