UNCW research team receives nearly $1 million grant for sponge research

UNCW research team receives nearly $1 million grant for sponge research
Published: Sep. 19, 2022 at 11:18 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - UNCW students and faculty are getting the opportunity to further their research on sea sponges and how they affect the overall health of coral reefs with the help of a nearly $1 million National Science Foundation grant.

A seven-person team representing UNCW’s Center for Marine Science and the departments of Biology and Marine Biology, Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Earth and Ocean Sciences will embark on an expedition next spring to gather sponge and water samples from the Mesoamerican Caribbean barrier reef next to Carrie Bow Cay off the coast of Belize.

“This work represents leading research to address basic, but unknown, questions about how reef ecosystems, which are critical for biodiversity, function,” said Dr. Ken Halanych, executive director of UNCW’s Center for Marine Science. “One of the novel aspects of this grant is scientists from several different disciplines are coming together to address the same issue from multiple different angles.”

Principle investigator Dr. Wendy Strangman, assistant professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and her team, Dr. Joe Pawlik, distinguished professor of Biology and Marine Biology; Dr. Winifred Johnson, assistant professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry; and Dr. Ralph Mead, professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences; collaborated on the research proposal.

“We know that sponges are taking over the reef as coral health declines,” Dr. Strangman said. “The Caribbean reefs of the future are likely going to be dominated by sponges, so now we are trying to understand their impact on the nutrition in the seawater around the reefs.”

According to a UNCW news release, the team will gather water samples “before and after they are processed by sponges and bring the samples back to the CMS labs to learn more about what dissolved compounds the sponges are absorbing and what effect it is having on nutrients and other chemicals in the water column.”

“Dr. Pawlik compares these dissolved compounds to sugar added to a cup of hot coffee. The sugar dissolves; however, the compound still exists in the liquid and can be absorbed as food, measured and analyzed,” the news release states. “In previous studies, Dr. Pawlik’s students determined that most of the diet of giant barrel sponges on Caribbean reefs is made up of dissolved compounds, but the identity of these compounds remains largely unknown.”

“Any information we can gather about the identities of these compounds will be new information to science,” said Dr. Pawlik. “Until recently, we haven’t had the techniques to answer these questions.”

You can read more about this research here.