Probing Two Seas' Deepest Secrets

Slideshow: Glowing underwater ››

David Gruber, assistant professor of biology and environmental science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center, spent last summer exploring the mysteries of deep coral reefs in the Caribbean and Red Seas. His work is part of a larger effort to protect and conserve coral reefs, which are highly endangered.

Gruber's goal was to understand the relationship and differences between the deep corals (at least 300 feet) and shallow corals. He collected samples off the coast of Little Cayman Island where corals are found at both depths, to examine molecular and physiological differences. He is also working to extract novel fluorescent proteins from the deep corals. So far, Gruber and his colleagues have discovered 28 of the roughly 130 known fluorescent proteins, which have become one of the most useful biomedical tools - leading to breakthroughs in AIDS and cancer research.

The aim of diving in the Red Sea was to undertake a cross-comparison of the Caribbean corals and understand how corals modify their calcification and physiology under climatic change. The ultimate goal for Gruber is to determine whether the deep coral reef will serve as refugia during global warming, as it has during normal glacial/interglacial cycles.

"I was amazed to see such different physiological adaptations among the deep corals," says Gruber, who collaborated on the project with an international team of scientists. "We know almost as little about the deep coral reef as we know about the moon."

Gruber's work has gained national recognition. On Oct. 1, Nature magazine highlighted new findings about the evolution of fluorescent proteins by Gruber and his colleagues. He is also among 13 young post-doctoral researchers in the country named to the first class of Ewing Marion

Kauffman Foundation fellows. Gruber's discoveries, according to the foundation, could have various practical and potentially profitable biomedical and drug applications.

"The new coral fluorescent proteins we've discovered have some very interesting properties, unlike those already known, that may illuminate neurological processes that have been studied only indirectly," says Gruber, who brought back with him samples of corals, hundreds of photos of the reefs and several hours of video. "It's always exciting to find fascinating fluorescing compounds in unlikely places."

Royal Support for Endangered Reefs

England's Prince Edward, an early advocate of reef preservation.
Coral reefs have long been under stress from global warming, disease and ocean acidification. Scientists estimate that 60 percent of the reefs are already dead or in decline.

But the reefs have a special friend from England's royal family - Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, who has been promoting their preservation for six years. In the spring, the prince visited the Macaulay Honors College to have some strong English tea and scones with clotted cream and to drum up publicity for the cause.

"What we're doing to oceans today is absolutely despicable but because we can't see it, nobody takes any notice of it," said the prince. "This is just one small effort to try to bring to people's attention what's really going on below the oceans."

The City University of New York stepped in to help when the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, on Little Cayman Island, launched the Coral Reef Conservancy at Macaulay last summer. David Gruber is cofounder and scientific adviser of the conservancy.

The prince has been the royal patron of the institute since 2003. And it was Gruber, who is friends with Carrie Manfrino, president of the institute, who had the idea to host an event at the college.

"I think it is fantastic that His Royal Highness Prince Edward has taken a personal interest in reef conservation," says Gruber. "Reversing coral decline is bound to be a global and coordinated effort."

The Coral Reef Conservancy is a worldwide initiative focused on preserving coral reefs through educating the public about their decline and by implementing solutions for reef recovery around the globe. Gruber hopes that with Prince Edward's support the reef initiative will generate the magnitude of attention that the rainforest campaign has achieved. And he's getting CUNY students involved. In January, he will bring students from his tropical reef ecology class to the institute, where they will gain field experience and examine the changes being reported on reefs around the world.

"By bringing CUNY students to Little Cayman Island and teaching them about the coral reef, they can soak up the latest information on the world's second most diverse ecosystem," says Gruber.