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UNF researcher awarded NSF grant to help save coral reefs

A team of researchers including Dr. Brian Wingender, University of North Florida Materials Science and Engineering Research Facility (MSERF) assistant director, was recently awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Integrative Biology (IntBIO) program grant. The research will aim to better understand the formation of biomineralized materials and to ultimately result in technology that could lead to stronger and more resilient corals, significantly impacting the oceans and coastal communities.

The first focus of the research is to study the functionality of proteins known to be associated with biomineralization, the process by which living organisms produce minerals to harden existing tissues such as teeth, bones, shells and corals. However, the formation mechanisms of these minerals are poorly understood because of the difficulty in replicating natural conditions in a lab.  

The researchers will manipulate gene expression in a soft coral common sea anemone (Nematostella Vectensis) to observe and understand the biomineralization process. The team’s primary focus is studying how factors like temperature and pH can affect marine biomineralization, by tailoring protein activity through targeted modification, to potentially discover functional characteristics that can help coral resist the harmful effects of climate change that threaten the ecosystems.  

The research project is composed of three main components:  

  • Researchers at the University of Florida’s (UF) Whitney Lab, Dr. Mark Martindale, a cellular and developmental biologist, and Dr. Sandra Loesgen, a natural products organic chemist, will develop techniques using high-resolution mass spectrometry. 
  • Dr. Tommy Angelini, a mechanical engineering professor at UF, will utilize “cellular micromasonry” 3D printing technology.  
  • Wingender will use the characterization tools at MSERF to analyze the biominerals produced by these genetically modified systems.