BOONE, N.C. — Thanks to a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Dr. Cara Fiore, visiting assistant professor in Appalachian State University’s Department of Biology, along with an interdisciplinary team will investigate microbially mediated ecological diversification in sponges found in the Caribbean. Fiore received a total of $208,119 in funding.
Her teammates for the project include Dr. Cole Easson, adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University; Dr. Christopher Freeman, postdoctoral fellow with the Smithsonian Marine Station; and Robert Thacker, professor in and chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook University.
According to Fiore, “Coral reefs represent a paradox because, despite their immense productivity and biodiversity, they are found in nutrient-poor habitats that are equivalent to ‘marine deserts.’
“In part, the success of many coral reef organisms like sponges and corals, are a result of an association of the host sponge or coral with diverse symbiotic microbes that live on and within the host. These microbes help recycle nutrients for the host organism and can provide new nutrients to the host.”
She said sponges are particularly abundant in the Caribbean, where their biomass exceeds that of reef-building corals. “Sponges are unique on coral reefs because they are efficient at filtering seawater for nutrients, can grow to a large size and they are prevalent on reefs worldwide,” Fiore said.
“For almost a quarter century, this success of sponge populations in the Caribbean has been linked to their filter-feeding ability; however, recent work has demonstrated that coexisting sponge species host unique communities of bacterial symbionts that might provide nutrients to each sponge host.”
In her commentary on the research project, Fiore explained, “We will test the hypothesis that all sponge species in the Caribbean do not obtain nutrients in the same way, rather, they have unique nutritional strategies that are mediated by their microbial communities. This research will combine field experiments and modern analytical tools to investigate environmental and physiological factors that may have led to the diverse and abundant sponge populations observed in the Caribbean today.”
One Appalachian graduate student, as well as one to two undergraduate students, will be involved in the research.
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About the Department of Biology
The Department of Biology is a community of teacher-scholars, with faculty representing the full breadth of biological specializations — from molecular genetics to landscape/ecosystem ecology. The department seeks to produce graduates with sound scientific knowledge, the skills to create new knowledge, and the excitement and appreciation of scientific discovery. Learn more at https://biology.appstate.edu.
About the College of Arts and Sciences
The College of Arts and Sciences is home to 16 academic departments, one stand-alone academic program, two centers and one residential college. These units span the humanities and the social, mathematical and natural sciences. The College of Arts and Sciences aims to develop a distinctive identity built upon our university's strengths, traditions and unique location. The college’s values lie not only in service to the university and local community, but through inspiring, training, educating and sustaining the development of its students as global citizens. There are approximately 6,100 student majors in the college. As the college is also largely responsible for implementing Appalachian's general education curriculum, it is heavily involved in the education of all students at the university, including those pursuing majors in other colleges. Learn more at https://cas.appstate.edu.
About Appalachian State University
As the premier public undergraduate institution in the state of North Carolina, Appalachian State University prepares students to lead purposeful lives as global citizens who understand and engage their responsibilities in creating a sustainable future for all. The Appalachian Experience promotes a spirit of inclusion that brings people together in inspiring ways to acquire and create knowledge, to grow holistically, to act with passion and determination, and to embrace diversity and difference. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Appalachian is one of 17 campuses in the University of North Carolina System. Appalachian enrolls more than 19,000 students, has a low student-to-faculty ratio and offers more than 150 undergraduate and graduate majors.