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Collaborative research bridges LU, University of Belize

Hostin May, Matt Hoch, Mark McNabMatthew Hoch, associate professor of biology at Lamar University, and Hostin May, senior biology and business major of Bridge City, collaborated with faculty and students from the University of Belize in Belmopan on research pertaining to coral reef microbiology this winter.

May and UB biology student Mark McNab spent two weeks in December and January stationed at the Smithsonian Institute’s Field Station on Carrie Bow Cay, a tiny island situated on the Belize Reef. May and McNab assisted Hoch in studying the hypothesis that microbial response to macroalgal dissolved organic matter and temperature facilitates coral loss on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.

The trip was May’s third to the Central American nation.

“Besides the tropical allure and delicious cuisine, not much research has been performed on back-reefs like these—mostly it’s the ‘big, sexy reefs’ like the Great Barrier that get all the attention,” May said. “So the goal is to help expand the back reef journal collection.”

After getting some experience in field and laboratory techniques, May and McNab collaborated on assessing the impact of temperature differences on the microbiome of Manicina areolata—commonly known as rose coral.

“Like the human body, corals also have ‘good bacteria,’ or microorganisms which positively affect the health of coral, and ‘bad bacteria,’ or disease-causing pathogens,” Hoch said.

Temperature, the focus of much of their research, has been shown to influence the microbial community in other coral species in both positive and negative ways.

“In some species, their associated microorganisms help the coral resist effects of rising temperature,” Hoch said. “In many other corals, rising temperature enhances growth of pathogenic bacteria, which can lead to coral death. Nobody knows how temperature influences the microbes—and which microbes are influenced—in rose coral.”

The team of May and McNab performed field sampling of the coral microbiome in habitats of contrasting temperature. Additionally, they performed a laboratory experiment to study short term effects of temperature rise, simulating sea surface temperature anomalies that have impacted similar reefs in recent decades.

“I gained a lot of valuable field and lab experience, but the bonds I made with Mark and the Carrie Bow cook, Ms. Martha, mean the most to me,” May said. “It was also sublime for me to immerse myself in the back-reef environment and visually be one on one with my work—not that we’re inattentive at home, but it’s a different experience in Belize.”

UB's Mark McNabThough the DNA sequencing of the microbiome is still in progress, May presented some preliminary findings from his and McNab’s project at the Undergraduate Research Expo in 2017.

“The experiences gained from this type of research are worth infinitely more than what you could learn in a classroom,” May said. “Research teaches you teamwork, scheduling, perseverance, and completely alters your school experience for the better.”

And according to May, having Hoch’s mentorship in research has been of equal importance to the projects themselves.

“A huge part of research is your mentor, and I am lucky to have one of the very best,” May said. “Dr. Hoch pushed me to make these projects happen and has kept me on a path to success, even when I doubted myself. I didn’t blaze this trail on my own—he was there for me every step of the way, and I am quite grateful for that.”

Hoch hopes to return to the Belize Reef with Lamar and UB students this summer, and will additionally be bringing a group of students to Belize for an eight-credit-hour advanced Tropical Biology study abroad program, during which students will perform research in the rain forest and on the barrier reef while interacting with the peoples and cultures of Central America and the Caribbean.

For more information about research opportunities in Belize or study abroad opportunities, contact Matt Hoch at matt.hoch@lamar.edu or (409) 880-8264.