Dissertation Research: Mechanisms and consequences of flexibility in mutualistic relationships
Mary Alice Coffroth Principal Investigator
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At the foundation of many biological communities are mutualisms in which a relatively large, long-lived host organism provides habitat to symbiotic partners in return for reproductive, energetic and/or defensive resources. With many partnerships available, flexibility in partner selection can provide the host organism the versatility to associate with the optimal partner for a particular environment. However, it also introduces the potential for cheating and competition among different symbiont types, which may draw essential resources away from the host and cause a breakdown of the host-symbiont mutualism. Corals and their genetically diverse but functionally similar algal symbionts provide an exceptional model system to better understand the ecological balance of these processes. This research will measure resource acquisition and exchange for a variety of laboratory induced coral-algal combinations to determine whether hosting multiple symbiont types has a positive, negative or null affect on the amount of resources provided to the coral host. <br/>The proposed research encompasses methods from multiple disciplines, molecular biology, carbon chemistry, photochemistry and statistical modeling to advance our understanding of a fundamental ecological interaction. These ecological models will be broadly applicable to host-symbiont mutualisms that are essential to terrestrial, freshwater and marine communities, aiding in the management and conservation of these areas. In addition, through mentorship and collaboration with two undergraduate students, the importance of mutualism ecology will be communicated through scientific, classroom and public platforms. This includes attendance at scientific conferences, developing teaching materials for K-12 classrooms and outreach efforts through the Aquarium of Niagara.