UOG Scientists Seek Genetic Reasons for Coral Reef Survival

UOG Professors, Jason Biggs and Tom Schils, pose for the exciting first sequencing run on the new genetic sequencer. This NextSeq 500, which is not much larger than a microwave oven, has the power to concurrently sequence up to 50 genomes.

High-tech genome mapping of coral species from Guam’s marine environment put scientists from the University of Guam’s Marine Laboratory at the forefront of coral reef research. Using the NextSeq 500, a newly installed genetic sequencer, UOG scientists are investigating how fragile coral reefs and marine ecosystems adapt to extreme environmental changes, including impacts associated with climate change such as warmer ocean waters, excessive sedimentation, and ocean acidification.

By studying coral genomes, scientists can better understand why some coral reefs thrive and survive and others die. “Coral reef survival is linked to Guam’s economic survival,” said Dr. John Peterson, UOG Assistant Vice President. “Everything from recreational tourism to fishing is based on the health of our coral reefs. It is in our best interests to better understand the genetic factors that enable coral colonies to thrive.”

The new genetic sequencer at the core of this research was made possible through the University of Guam’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program, a $6 million grant award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).  According to Dr. Jason Biggs, Associate Professor of Molecular Ecology and EPSCoR Co-Principal Investigator, the new instruments will allow UOG Marine Laboratory and EPSCoR researchers to sequence genetic information and systematically study Guam’s coral colonies. Other scientists in Hawaii and Australia have already begun such research, but Guam, with its historically warmer climate, poses a new and exciting opportunity for local researchers.

“Having this technology in such close proximity to Guam’s coral reefs will enable our faculty to be at the forefront of molecular reef ecology, tackling questions we are just beginning to ask,” said Dr. Biggs. “These new sequencers are at the core of this research and only a handful of them are stationed in places as unique as Guam and Micronesia. These instruments will allow us, the people of Guam, to study these things for ourselves, and train our students as the next frontier scientists.” 

That is part of the goal, explains Dr. Terry Donaldson, Marine Laboratory Director and EPSCoR Principal Investigator. The instruments underscore the University’s increased research capacity and ability to provide scientific services within the region while attracting more researchers, students, and external funding opportunities in the future.

“Through EPSCoR, the University of Guam has joined an elite group of institutions that are building research capacity, improving infrastructure and cyber-infrastructure, and providing greater educational opportunities for students while enhancing research opportunities for young scientists, ” said Dr. Donaldson.

“We have reached a significant institutional and research milestone with the successful acquisition and installation of genetic sequencing instruments,” said President Robert A. Underwood. “Our increased research capacity combined with record enrollment and conferral of a record number of degrees showcase the strides the University has undertaken in the last year; all of which have a major positive impact on our community.”

Summer Research Experience

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Guam EPSCOR is a 5-year, $6 million grant at the University of Guam that aims to develop a Guam Ecosystems Collaboratorium in order to ensure the sustainability of coral reef ecosystems in the face of environmental change. In addition to its research goals, Guam EPSCoR seeks to increase the number and diversity of students who choose Science Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers by engaging students in its Summer Research Experience Program.

The program enhances undergraduate curriculums with invaluable research experience and insight into career paths leading to masters and doctoral degrees. EPSCoR students in the REU Program may participate in field and lab studies that document coral reef ecosystems. Students will engage in biological sampling, mapping, videography, photography, oceanographic measurements and genetic analysis to better understand Guam’s corals. 

The University of Guam and Research Corporation of the University of Guam are Equal Opportunity Employers that have received funding from the National Science Foundation to broaden the participation of underrepresented students in STEM fields. As such, the Summer Research Experience Program remains open to all qualified students, but women, minorities, and students with disabilities are particularly encouraged to apply. Selected students must be available 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM, Monday through Friday for the duration of the summer program. 

Program applications are due April 8, 2016 and internships begin May 25th through July 25th.

Program Eligibility Requirements:

  • Must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident of Guam and at least 18 years old (Applicants under 18 require parent/guardian signature)
  • Must be enrolled as an undergraduate in good academic standing 

How to apply:

  1. Complete the online application form 
  2. Provide at least 2 references
  3. Provide official transcripts to GSRSP/EPSCoR Offices at the Dean’s Circle House #33

Guam EPSCoR Team to Test Genetics of Coral

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2015 epscorcoral2 1500 418x313 1

By testing if genetics plays a part in corals’ survival in extreme environments, Marine Lab scientists hope to slow down the decline of coral reefs

It was in 2013 that Guam experienced one of the worst coral bleaching events in the island’s recorded history—not only widespread throughout the reefs but also down to depths that affected multiple species, not just a few.

Scientists at the University of Guam Marine Laboratory, who had predicted the extent of the event and began extensive monitoring post-bleaching, took notice of a strange occurrence amongst the corals.

“There were individuals of the same species sitting next to each other that were and were not bleached,” said Dr. Jason Biggs, assistant professor of Marine Biology. “So we said there had to be a genetic part to this. It’s got to be in the genes, and if that’s true, then maybe we can slow down the decline of coral reefs.”

This idea became the basis upon which the grant for the EPSCoR funding was written.

In August, UOG announced a $6 million grant from the National Science Foundation through its Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program for coastal ecosystems research. The funding is for five years and represents one of the single largest grants awarded in UOG history. 

With the funding, a group of faculty and students plan to test two hypotheses—that the genetic structures of coral are all the same, and they survive by chance and that environmental stressors don’t exert selection pressure.

These hypotheses are linked to four main goals set to track the progress of the research.

These goals include mapping the genetic landscape of two coral species— Acropora surculosa, a more susceptible coral, and Porites rus, a less susceptible coral—to possibly identify special genotypes or subspecies that can help predict climate variability.

Scientists also set out to create a physical and cyber biorepository that stores information on specimens collected during research, to characterize the surrounding environment, and to establish a Guam Ecosystems Collaboratorium.

“If we do all of this and find that certain corals have certain genes turned on, we will have some hints toward a genetic aspect, which could be an adaptation to these extreme environments” Biggs said. “Then we can start working from there to propagate these and spread them around in the reefs or start looking into the physiological and genetic mechanisms that are working and how that gene makes the coral survive in that environment.”


To test these hypotheses, Marine Lab scientists plan to use cutting edge equipment and infrastructure—like a cryogenic storage facility and an upgrade to fiber optics for improved cyber connectivity—funded through the EPSCoR grant on six specific locations around the island.

Specimens and data will be collected in Pago Bay, Fouha Bay, Apra Harbor, Achang Bay, around Pati Point, and Tumon Bay. The diversity in the six locations will help scientists collect data that truly reflects the marine landscape of the entire island.

Student Opportunities

Dr. Laura Biggs, a principal investigator on the EPSCoR project, said there are two avenues through which students can participate in the research and data collection for the EPSCoR project.

Graduate students can apply for a graduate research assistantship, where they will develop a thesis that aligns with the EPSCoR goals and efforts and conduct research alongside the scientists of the Marine Lab. Each graduate student could received a tuition waiver for up to 21 credits per semester and earn up to $18,000 a year for the work they do. Once they finish, there is a 1:1 work ratio, so the students trained on Guam can give back to the island community, she said.

For undergraduate students, they can apply for summer research experiences that pays up to $12,000 for helping to research and collect data.

Jason Biggs said it’s UOG’s responsibility to do the research that affects not just our island but region and, in turn, inform the public on how to solve future problems.

“Us being the only four-year accredited university in the Western Pacific, we have a duty to arm our people with the knowledge and capability to solve these problems ourselves,” he said. “For the Marianas, we are an ocean people. Without the coral reefs, how can you be a culture of the ocean when there’s nothing in the ocean to sustain you? Ultimately, we will be defined by what we have.”

CONGRATULATIONS, GUAM! UOG Announces $6M Grant Award for Marine Research

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2015 epscor 1500

Students will have opportunities to engage in unique undergraduate and graduate research experiences with EPSCoR faculty.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $6 million grant to the University of Guam through its Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program for coastal ecosystems research. The funding is for five years and represents one of the single largest grants awarded in UOG history. 

“The grant award is the culmination of a University-wide collaborative effort over the last three years,” said Dr. Robert Underwood, UOG President. “The EPSCoR project elevates the University into a new league for research endeavors and provides access to additional funding beyond the NSF through the EPSCoR network and a possibility of even more in the next funding cycle.”

The UOG Marine Laboratory will spearhead the EPSCoR project, which will evaluate how marine ecosystems and fragile coral reefs respond and adapt to environmental and climate stressors. Guam will function as a “living laboratory” to investigate the sustainability of marine coastal environments under changing sea levels, sea-surface temperatures, and water quality conditions in the Western Pacific. 

“Our Marine Laboratory has been a top research location for researchers,” said Dr. Terry Donaldson, UOG Marine Laboratory Director. “With EPSCoR funding, the University of Guam’s capabilities will be greatly enhanced as it conducts cutting edge research on climate change effects on coral reef systems.”

UOG EPSCoR will incorporate scientific discoveries into regional teaching programs, graduate education and public participation in scientific research. The project will also enhance the University’s cyberinfrastructure and Internet connectivity to meet the comprehensive data exchange requirements of the project.  

“We’ve always been proud of the first-rate researchers and teachers at UOG, but with this award we leap-frog into the front row,” said Dr. John Peterson, UOG Assistant Vice President of Graduate Studies, Research and Sponsored Programs. “Young scholars, faculty and students, will have new opportunities to participate and collaborate in an international network of higher education, and we expect to contribute more to our regional workforce through natural resources and IT management and support.”

The Principal Investigator for the grant is Donaldson, and Co-Principal Investigators are Peterson, Dr. Jason Biggs, Associate Professor, UOG Marine Laboratory and Dr. Laura Biggs, Assistant Professor.

The mission of EPSCoR is to assist the National Science Foundation in its statutory function “to strengthen research and education in science and engineering throughout the United States and to avoid undue concentration of such research and education.” For this grant cycle, NSF also awarded EPSCoR grants to Arkansas, Louisiana and West Virginia.

For more information, please contact Norman Analista, Acting Dir. of Integrated Marketing Communications at 797-3333 or email nanalista@uguam.uog.edu.

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