Christian Voolstra, Ph.D.


Adjunct Associate Professor of Marine Science

Research Interests

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 NEOMVision 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.

Selected Publications

  • Systematic Revision of Symbiodiniaceae Highlights the Antiquity and Diversity of Coral Endosymbionts  T.C. LaJeunesse, J. Everett Parkinson, P.W. Gabrielson, H.J. Jeong, J. Davis Reimer, C.R. ... Current Biology, 28, pp. 1-11, (2018)
  • Sugar enrichment provides evidence for a role of nitrogen fixation in coral bleaching  C. Pogoreutz, N. Rädecker, A. Cárdenas, A. Gärdes, C.R. Voolstra, C. Wild Global Change Biology, (2017)
  • Bacterial community dynamics are linked to patterns of coral heat tolerance  M. Ziegler, F.O. Seneca, L.K. Yum, S.R. Palumbi, C.R. Voolstra Nature Communications, 8, 14213, (2017)
  • Biogeography and molecular diversity of coral symbionts in the genus Symbiodinium around the Arabian Peninsula.  M. Ziegler, C. Arif, J.A. Burt, S. Dobretsov, C. Roder, T.C. Lajeunesse, C.R. Voolstra Journal of Biogeography, 136, (2017)
  • Genomes of coral dinoflagellate symbionts highlight evolutionary adaptations conducive to a symbiotic lifestyle  M. Aranda, Y. Li, Y.J. Liew, S. Baumgarten, O. Simakov, M.C. Wilson, J. Piel, H. Ashoor, S... Sci Rep., 6:39734, (2016)
  • Ocean One: A Robotic Avatar for Oceanic Discovery.  O. Khatib, X. Yeh, G. Brantner, B. Soe, B. Kim, S. Ganguly, H. Stuart, S. Wang, M. Cutkosk... IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine, (2016)
  • Year-Long monitoring of physico-chemical and biological variables provide a comparative baseline of coral reef functioning in the Central Red Sea  A. Roik, T. Roethig, C. Roder, M. Ziegler, S.G. Kremb, C.R. Voolstra PLoS One, 11(11): e0163939, (2016)
  • Ancestral genetic diversity associated with the rapid spread of stress-tolerant coral symbionts in response to Holocene climate change.  B.C.C. Hume, C.R. Voolstra, C. Arif, C. D'Angelo, J.A. Burt, G. Eyal, Y. Loya and J. Wiede... Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (2016)
  • Reefgenomics.Org - a repository for marine genomics data. Y.J. Liew, M. Aranda, C.R. Voolstra Database : The Journal of Biological Databases and Curation, baw152, 1-..., (2016)
  • The genome of Aiptasia, a sea anemone model for coral symbiosis.  S. Baumgarten, O. Simakov, L.Y. Esherick, Y.J. Liew, E.M. Lehnert, C.T. Michell, Y. Li, E.... Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., 112(38), pp. 11893-11898, (2015


  • Postdoctoral Fellow, University of California, Merced, USA, 2009
  • Ph.D., Evolutionary Genomics, University of Cologne, Germany, 2006
  • Diploma, Genetics, University of Cologne, Germany​, 2001

Professional Profile

  • 2019-Present: Professor of Genetics of Adaptation in Aquatic Systems, University of Konstanz, Germany
  • 2019-present: Adjunct Associate Professor Red Sea Research Center, KAUST, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia
  • 2015-2019: Associate Professor of Marine Science, KAUST, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia​
  • 2009-2015: Assistant Professor of Marine Science, KAUST, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia
  • 2007-2009: Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of California, Merced, USA
  • 2002-2006: Research Assistant, University of Cologne, Germany
  • 2000-2001: Scientific Assistant, University of Cologne, Germany​

Scientific and Professional Membership

  • International Society for Reef Studies (ISRS)
  • International Society for Microbial Ecology (ISME)
  • American Society for Microbiology (SAM)
  • Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean (AMLC)
  • Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography (ASLO)
  • Verband Deutscher Biologen (Vdbiol)
  • Deutscher Hochschulverband (DHV)


  • TARA-Pacific Scientific Coordinator, 2015-present
  • Steering commitee member Global Invertebrate Genomics Alliance (GIGA), 2015-present
  • Outstanding Contribution in Reviewing for Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2016
  • Frontiers Science Hero, 2016
  • Selected Top Reviewer for Molecular Ecology, 2015
  • Selected Top Reviewer for Molecular Ecology, 2012

KAUST Affiliations

  •  ​​​KAUST Red Sea Research Center (RSRC)
  •  Biological and Environmental Sciences and Engineering Division (BESE) 

Non-KAUST Affiliations

  • University of Konstanz, Germany

Research Interests Keywords

Environmental Genomics Microbial ecology Metaorganism Coral symbiosis Corals