UW aerospace engineer part of $1.7M grant to study corals

A healthy reef in Indonesia teems with life.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from multiple institutions – including the University of Washington – has received a two-year $1.7 million National Science Foundation grant to study coral growth.Michael Webster

Coral reefs are disappearing at a rapid rate around the world. They’re threatened by human impacts at both local and global scales, and they’re facing dire predictions for the future.

But conservation and restoration efforts have been a challenge because corals – an animal host coexisting with algae, bacteria, viruses and fungi – act more like cities than individuals.

Now an interdisciplinary team of researchers from multiple institutions, including the University of Washington, has received a two-year, $1.7 million National Science Foundation grant to study coral growth. The team includes Jinkyu Yang, a UW associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics.

“This project is good example of how aerospace engineers, marine biologists, chemical engineers and computer scientists can work together,” Yang said. “Successful aerospace missions often rely on advanced materials, which can be used for other fields of studies. Likewise, materials – even living materials – in other fields can inspire the design of aerospace engineering materials.”

The researchers will study corals as though they are tiny manufacturing sites in the ocean. The team will focus on three unique characteristics of coral communities: the corals’ calcium carbonate skeletons, which provide 3D structures to shelter diverse sea life; corals’ ability to self-heal damage to their tissues; and the corals’ symbiotic relationships with other organisms.

At the UW, Yang’s group will 3D print scaffolds to guide coral growth and look into new techniques to measure how well the corals grow.

Collaborating with Yang are Judith Klein-Seetharaman at the Colorado School of Mines, Hollie Putnam of the University of Rhode Island, Lenore Cowen at Tufts University and Nastassja Lewinski at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“We are at a tipping point, where new research efforts could have a snowball effect in drastically increasing our understanding of corals,” said project lead Klein-Seetharaman, an associate professor of chemistry at Colorado School of Mines.

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