Investigating the effect of oil spills
on the environment and public health.
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Funding Source: Year One Block Grant - Florida Institute of Oceanography

Project Overview

Molecular Diagnostics of Coral Exposed to Oil and Dispersants: A Holobiont Approach to Investigate Potential Effects on the Host Corals, Symbiotic Algae, and Mucus Associated Microbial Communities

Principal Investigator
Florida Atlantic University
Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute
Member Institutions
Florida Atlantic University, Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, Georgia Institute of Technology, Mote Marine Laboratory


Toxic contaminants from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are currently threatening nearby coral reef ecosystems, such as the Florida Keys.  Given the ecological and economic importance of coral reefs in Florida and worldwide, understanding the acute and chronic impacts of oil and dispersants on coral health is critical for developing management strategies to reduce or mitigate coral loss.  The goal of this project is an integrated assessment of oil and dispersant impacts on Florida’s reef building corals.  This will be accomplished through a combination of ex situ exposure experiments, advanced molecular techniques, and in situ monitoring at potentially affected sites.  The strength of this approach lies in the complementary use of traditional ecological approaches with advanced molecular coral health diagnostics.

In this project, a coral toxicant-stress microarray and molecular fingerprinting techniques will be used to identify changes in genetic profiles and microbial communities of corals associated with exposure to crude oil, dispersants, or a combination of the two contaminants.  These molecular techniques will be combined with ongoing surveys of coral reef health at established Coral Reef Evaluation and Monitoring Project (CREMP) sites in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Dry Tortugas. 

This project specifically aims to:

  1. Adapt our current, coral-stress microarray to include genetic biomarkers indicative of oil/ dispersant exposure
  2. Determine the potential effects of oil and dispersants on coral health at molecular, organismal, population, and community levels
  3. Identify damage to corals due to oil/dispersant exposure including both mortality and sublethal stresses
  4. Determine the chronic impacts of oil on coral health and the potential for recovery and resilience in affected habitats. 

Results of this study are expected to match with several goals of the FIO quick response oil spill program by providing baseline studies and impact assessments of sensitive and ecologically important species and through the development and implementation of strategies to protect these species and restore healthy habitats.  Furthermore, we expect the approaches in this study will provide valuable tools, techniques and data for future oil spill incidents.

This research was made possible by a grant from BP/The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative.