View all news

Coral researcher heads to Lizard Island


Brigid Veale
20 February 2006
With the world's coral reefs continuing to decline, a Southern Cross University researcher is hoping her study into coral viruses may provide some much-needed answers about coral health.

Nicole Patten, a PhD candidate with the School of Environmental Science and Management, has been awarded a highly sought after Lizard Island Reef Research Doctoral Fellowship to continue her project.

The Fellowship will allow Nicole to use the world-leading research facilities on Lizard Island, located 270km north of Cairns, for a year. The research station is owned and operated by the Australian Museum and is supported by the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation and the Coral Reef and Marine Science Foundation.

Nicole said she would be examining the occurrence of coral-associated viruses and the roles that viruses play in coral health.

"The roles of viruses associated with corals and their involvement in coral disease events have largely been ignored, with disease most commonly attributed to bacteria," Nicole said.

Her preliminary findings show higher viral abundance in the coral-surface microlayer (the layer that extends a few millimeters from coral tissue) than in the overlying water, and that within this layer, viruses show a range of different forms.

Using a variety of techniques, she will determine the numbers of viruses associated with corals, whether viral populations change between different coral species or between healthy and diseased corals of the same species. She will also conduct experimental work which will allow her to investigate how changes in coral-associated viruses affect coral health.

"Given the currently limited understanding of the roles of microbes in coral health and the increasing concerns regarding the decline of the world's coral reefs, this research is timely. It will contribute to the understanding of factors important in coral health by determining the importance of viruses and their potential roles as vectors and infectious disease causing agents."

Dr Anne Hoggett, from the Lizard Island Research Station, said there was very strong competition for the fellowships, which were designed to help assist researchers learn more about coral reefs and their conservation.

Nicole is being supervised by leading coral expert Associate Professor Peter Harrison, from SCU, and Associate Professor Jim Mitchell from Flinders University in South Australia.

Photo caption: Nicole Patten collects mucus from coral as part of her study into coral-associated viruses.