Maha Cziesielski joined the KAUST Red Sea Research Center (RSRC) in 2014 after completing her M.Sc. in Marine Biology at The University of Southampton, U.K. Maha is a Ph.D. student and a member of Professor Manuel Aranda's Coral Symbiomics Lab. It was during her time in the U.K. that she first got in touch with Aranda and learned about KAUST.
"I found out about KAUST while doing research in my undergrad and discovered the Red Sea Research Center and Manuel's lab in the process. When I came here in 2014, it was supposed to be just for four months of internship, but I really enjoyed the facilities, the equipment, and the possibilities that we have here for researchers, so I decided to stay. Plus, I thoroughly enjoy working with Manuel, and we came up with an exciting Ph.D. project that we were both interested in," she said.
Maha's research interest concentrates on epigenetics, proteomics, transcriptomics, and understanding the molecular relationship behind symbiosis of the model organism Aiptasia and Symbiodinium. Her current focus investigates the thermotolerance, or resilience, of corals to climate change, specifically their ability to weather stressful temperature increases.
"My research looks at the combination of the coral and the coral with its partner in response to temperature increases. I look at three different molecular layers. I look at the transcriptome, which is RNA content, the proteome, which is total proteins, and finally, I look at epigenetics," she noted.
"In epigenetics specifically, I'm focusing on histone modifications. Histones are proteins that pack and bind DNA in all living forms, and I look at how these changes or modifications in DNA packaging can influence not only cell functioning but, in the end, could also potentially work as an adaptive mechanism to climate change," Maha added.
The RSRC's cutting-edge combination of ecology, molecular biology, and population genetics expertise helps to a create a clearer picture of what exactly makes corals in the Red Sea more temperature resilient. Cziesielski is of the belief that the investigations carried out by her and her colleagues can benefit her host country.
"I would say that my research is part of the bigger scheme of helping Saudi Arabia. In Saudi, we have a very fortunate environment with both the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. In both cases, we have some of the warmest waters in the world. Through understanding the coral reef ecosystems in the Red Sea—their mechanisms and how they've adapted to warmer environments—we may yet be able to 'teach' other globally endangered corals how to survive future climate change scenarios," she asserted.
"That is why I believe that my research is part of the RSRC's focus to help find a solution for thermal tolerance in corals and this really makes the Kingdom an environmental leader due to its natural warmer seas," Cziesielski added.
Maha maintains that future work in the field of coral research will move towards understanding and defining further details of the inner workings of coral biology. "We need to discover what has allowed corals to survive hundreds of years of already-interesting climate change. Hopefully, we can find a way to clarify the natural mechanisms that they have for survival and bring it out in them sooner rather than later so that we can avert serious degradation of reef environments."