Christian Voolstra, an Associate Professor of Marine Science and the Associate Director at the KAUST Red Sea Research Center (RSRC), began his scientific career researching model organisms in his native Germany. It was during his time as a postdoctoral fellow in California that he was intrigued by an advertisement in the scientific journal, Nature.
"I saw the two-page ad in Nature in 2009, for a new university in Saudi Arabia which kind of piqued my interest. I applied for a listed position, and within a few weeks, I received a phone call to fly out to KAUST and do some interviews. When I arrived, I saw that research-wise you can knock yourself out at this place. I saw the opportunity and the promise of the University," Voolstra emphasized.
Voolstra's research area is ecological and environmental genomics, and his current research aims to develop an integrated understanding of the ecology and evolution of the coral metaorganism. In particular the contribution of microorganisms to the well-being of their animal hosts. "This is the forefront of today's research: can we tailor microbes to make plants and animals and ourselves better and healthier?," Voolstra noted. Although coral reefs are increasingly affected by climate change, not all coral reefs are affected equally, and microbes may have something to do with that.
Voolstra and his RSRC colleagues are currently exploring the north-south environmental gradients of the Red Sea to gain a greater understanding as to why the majority of Red Sea coral is healthy and more heat resilient to stresses versus reefs found in other parts of the world.
He was also the co-author of a recent paper that suggests that coral-algal partnerships have endured and survived numerous climate change events over their long history. The research indicates that modern corals and their microalgae partners have been in a symbiotic relationship for a hundred sixty million years (100 million years longer than was previously thought).
"From our findings—now that we can say the coral is older—we can say it survived several environmental catastrophes over its time. Of course, it doesn't undo everything you read in the headlines that the coral reefs are dying, but it means that we have to make a bigger and better effort to understand and investigate more reefs," he noted.
Voolstra believes that Saudi Arabia can be at the forefront of future global marine conservation efforts and become a marine preservation leader. "There is a change in how we think and view the marine environment, and I think Saudi is in a position to lead this effort. At the RSRC we can provide a lot of expert input into supporting such initiatives like NEOM, Vision 2030 and supporting sustainable, eco-friendly marine tourism here in the Kingdom," Voolstra observed.
Just as the bacteria found in the human gut can contribute to our overall well-being, the researchers at KAUST believe that most of the bacteria found in coral improve the overall health of coral and act as probiotic for coral.
"On a very applied level, this holds tremendous application. We are moving towards personalized medicine, you get basically your genome and based on that you get your medication. Medical professionals can do a profile on how healthy and resilient you are as an individual, and we are aiming to develop this for corals," he concluded.