Feature Friday: Mike Connelly

Hi, Mike Connelly! Great to have you on ReefBites.




Mike is a Ph.D. student at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. His research focuses on the innate immunity and bacteria community interactions in Pocillopora corals. Read more about Mike below! 

Give an elevator pitch of what your research/project is about.

Healthy corals live in association with a large diversity of microbes, most notably symbiotic dinoflagellate algae. However, corals also harbour diverse bacterial communities in their mucus layer, gut, and tissues, which are hypothesized to contribute to the health and homeostasis of the coral “holobiont”. Additionally, corals possess innate immune systems capable of microbial recognition, cellular signalling, and deploying defense mechanisms similar to those found in other invertebrates. It is likely that the complexity and diversity of the coral immune system has a role in coral-bacteria interactions, and underpins corals’ ability to adapt to environmental change, resist infectious diseases, and maintain microbial symbioses.

For my Ph.D. research I use antibiotics treatments to try and disrupt coral bacterial communities and measure the resulting expression of coral immune genes to try and identify how coral innate immunity maintains these relationships. I also subject antibiotics-treated corals to heat stress to try and determine the relative importance of healthy, stable coral bacteria communities in corals’ responses to higher temperatures.

Why is this research/project important and timely?

Given the imminent collapse of coral reef ecosystems in Florida and around the world, it is critical to understand how bacteria contribute to the health of reef-building corals. By studying coral immunity and bacterial communities after exposure to various stressors, we can understand which genes and/or microbes might be critical for corals to maintain stable microbiomes during environmental stress such as high sea temperatures. 

What is the broader impact and implication of your findings?

P. damicornis is currently used in active coral reef restoration projects throughout the Pacific Ocean. This project has the potential to identify genetic biomarkers that could be used to identify immunocompetent and stress-tolerant coral genotypes. Additionally, this project will shed light on the evolution of innate immunity across the tree of life. Corals possess homologs of many human and invertebrate innate immunity genes, which may have similar functions in mediating interactions with symbiotic bacteria communities. By examining the evolutionary relationships of these gene families across various taxa such as corals, sponges, molluscs, echinoderms and vertebrates, we can better understand the origins of innate immunity in early metazoans. 

How did you come to work in this field/project?

When I was a kid, my uncle took me on many visits to public aquariums in New Jersey, and I eventually started a small aquarium at home. Through the marine aquarium hobby, I learned about the global value of coral reef ecosystems and the many local and climatic threats that were endangering their survival, and I committed myself to pursuing a career in marine conservation. 

I then attended the University of Miami for my undergraduate studies in marine science and biology, where I was fortunate enough to take courses in microbiology and immunology and was also able to intern in multiple research labs. The same year I graduated with my B.S. degree my current advisor, Dr. Nikki Traylor-Knowles, joined the university and offered me a Ph.D. student position in her new laboratory studying coral-bacteria interactions using Pocillopora spp. corals as a model system.

What is your top graduate school life hack or survival resource?

I would encourage graduate students to remember that everyone’s experience in graduate school is different, and often unique to each individual. At different points you may need to rely on your advisor, labmates, and friends for guidance or support, and at other times you might need greater self-reliance and perseverance. The most important piece of advice is to believe in and care for yourself and the relationships that matter to you, which will give you the patience and diligence to succeed in graduate school. 

Lastly, taking time to explore things that interest you outside of your studies can really enrich your experience, and can even bring new ideas into your work. Don’t be afraid to listen to your intuition and seek out opportunities that are interesting to you, because you never know what doors may open when you knock.

Any additional information or comments you would like to share?

In our laboratory at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, we have been propagating fragments of a colony of P. damicornis that was collected in Panama by Dr. Peter Glynn in 2005. This particular genotype was used to assemble the P. damicornis genome that was published in Cunning et al. 2018 and is now available at www.reefgenomics.org and at the NCBI. Our group is committed to advancing Pocillopora as a “model genus” for the study of coral molecular and cellular biology, so if you are a graduate student studying Pocillopora corals and doing projects on coral evolution, gene expression, microbial symbionts, or any other topic please reach out, especially if you’re using the genome!

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