The microbiologist: Tweaking genes to help corals survive climate change
Feb. 29, 2012
Kim Ritchie, a molecular biologist at Florida's Mote Marine Laboratory, is pushing the frontiers of gene therapy.
Harnessing beneficial bacteria, she's helping coral reefs weather pollution, overfishing and climate change.
Climate Query For Dr. Kim Ritchie
Interview conducted and condensed by Rae Tyson
Editor's note: Climate Query is a semi-weekly feature offered by Daily Climate, presenting short Q&A's with players large and small in the climate arena. Read others in the series here.
Kim Ritchie fell into coral research as an undergraduate, got a Ph.D. in genetics and was doing post-doctoral research in Panama when she lost her funding. With the ideal training for biotech, however, she slipped right into a startup. But when the company went bankrupt, she jumped back into research.
Today she manages the microbiology program at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., a nonprofit research center dedicated to studying marine and estuarine ecosystems. Ritchie is taking a novel approach to reviving stressed coral reefs, looking at the role bacteria can play in coral health. She is tinkering with gene therapy – primarily DNA swapping – to restore coral reefs by fostering beneficial bacterial growth.
Ritchie earned her doctorate in genetics from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and did post-doctoral research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Foundation in Panama. Ritchie has two grown daughters – Emily and Jillian – two cats and two dogs, loves watersports and enjoys cooking Mediterranean food in her spare time.
Why are reefs important?
Many reasons. They are storm breaks, essentially. They're also habitat to many commercially important species and fisheries. Coral reefs, while they make up a small percentage of the oceans, harbor a diverse assemblage of organisms.
Coral reefs face at least three threats – pollution, overfishing and climate change. What has had the most impact?
All three have had an effect but climate change, with its increasing temperatures and changing ocean pH, is the most detrimental because it is most closely linked with coral disease and death worldwide.
There are signs out of Australia that corals are tougher than expected. How do we know coral reefs won't just adapt?
It’s not surprising and it is hopeful. There are subpopulations that don’t die off. Perhaps they can reseed the coral reefs and everything becomes more resilient.
Australians are also freezing polyps and coral embryos in the hopes of recreating the Great Barrier Reef in some future era.
If the things they are saving aren’t resistant to whatever the change is, that might not be a good solution.
You are investigating the viability of gene therapy – re-introducing healthy bacteria – to stem coral degradation. How is that research progressing?
Once we learn how about what genes are being exchanged – and with whom – we can start to think about applying this technology.
Explain a little the logistics of your research.
I dive and free dive to do surveys and collect samples but I'm a microbiologist and molecular biologist so most of my work takes place in the laboratory.
Percentage of time in the water versus the lab?
I spend a couple of days a month in the water. I should be in the lab more than I am but, quite often, I am in front of my computer. I would say, computer first, then lab, then water.
Any scary moments while diving?
One of the places I do a lot of my work is Looe Key reef. It’s a protected area so there are big fish. When I first started diving there I came face to face with some pretty big sharks. Then I realized, they don’t care, they just keep swimming.
Most distressing thing you have seen in a coral reef?
We had a cold snap that completely killed about a third of the corals near shore in the lower Keys a few years back. It is something no one could have predicted.
Photos of Kim Ritchie sampling coral underwater courtesy Erinn Muller/Mote Marine Laboratory. Photo of Kim Ritchie in her lab courtesy Cathleen Sullivan/Mote Marine Laboratory.
Rae Tyson pioneered the environmental beat at USA Today in the 1980s and today restores and races vintage motorcycles in central Pennsylvania. Climate Query is a semi-weekly feature offered by DailyClimate.org, a nonprofit news service that covers climate change.
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