Marine biologist fights to save coral reefs

Climate change and other stressors are decimating the oceans’ coral reefs. Nikki Traylor-Knowles, an associate professor and biologist for the University, is taking a clinical approach, including stem-cell therapy, to help save them.
Marine biologist fights to save coral reefs

Nikki Traylor-Knowles, an associate professor and biologist for the University, is researching new ways to help save corals.

Photo: Joshua Prezant/University of Miami

Up and out the door by five in the morning, 9-year-old Nikki Traylor-Knowles would stand on a rocky section of Baja California’s shoreline, watching and waiting for the tide to recede. Once it did, that was her queue to explore the life left behind in the isolated pockets of seawater trapped in the deep depressions of sand and stones—from sea anemones and sand dollars to starfish, snails, and sea urchins. 

“Other than watching episodes of ‘Shark Week,’ those outings were my first experience with marine life,” Traylor-Knowles recalled of her family vacations to that part of Mexico. “It was fascinating, and I knew from then on that I was going to be a marine biologist.” 

Today, she has gone from probing the contents of tide pools to becoming part of the fight to save coral reefs from extinction. It is an effort that takes place not in the sea but in the lab, where Traylor-Knowles, at times, is more medical clinician than marine biologist, studying the immune system of corals and experimenting with techniques to make them more resistant to disease. 

“Corals can’t swim or move in any other fashion. So, they must have a way to deal with their environment,” said Traylor-Knowles, an associate professor of marine biology and ecology at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science. “With the effects of climate change and other severe threats in our oceans, corals are in peril. But some have demonstrated an ability to survive. Is there something unique about their immune system that helps them to do so? We’re trying to find out, with the goal of being able to manipulate or boost the immune systems of other corals to make them more resistant.” 

Her research in the genetic manipulation of corals is still in its infancy, but it couldn’t be more critical. Stony coral tissue loss disease, first reported off the coast of Miami-Dade County in 2014 and the cause of which remains unknown, has now spread to other parts of Florida’s reef tract and throughout the Caribbean, harming more than 20 species including major reef builders such as brain coral. And globally, rising ocean temperatures killed about 14 percent of the world’s reefs between 2008 and 2019, according to a report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.  

But while corals are dying at an alarming rate, it is not too late to save them. “We have to do everything we can to give them a lifeline,” Traylor-Knowles said.

Corals, she noted, are among the most diverse of all marine ecosystems, teeming with life. At the same time, they are enigmas, presenting researchers with questions to which they have yet to find answers.

“Over evolutionary time, they’ve developed a complex immune system to deal with all the organisms that potentially could enter their bodies. Yet, many of those organisms can trick the immune system of corals to get in, and we’re trying to figure out how that’s possible,” said Traylor-Knowles, referring to algae, bacteria, and fungi that circumvent defense to live in symbiosis with other organisms inside the tissue of corals.

Her Cnidarian Immunity Laboratory has exceled by conducting research few others have taken on. “Looking at problems from a different perspective is important,” she said. “That’s why we are taking a clinical approach to address the pressing problems facing corals. Many of the methods we developed were things some people said wouldn’t be possible.”

Traylor-Knowles already has achieved a significant breakthrough, exposing the cells of sea anemone and corals to antibiotics to keep them alive in a petri dish for up to 12 days—a discovery that has important implications for studying everything from evolutionary biology to human health.

The marine biologist is now working on what could be considered the holy grail of coral reef research: using the medical application of stem cell-based therapy to make corals more resistant to heat. “Corals have a reprogramming mechanism. It may be different from ours or other organisms, but they have that ability. The idea is that we can harvest stem cells from corals that are more heat- and disease-tolerant and transplant those cells into weaker corals,” she explained. “It’s work that is very much in the beginning stages, but it’s necessary for us to do it, as corals are an important source of nutrition for some coastal communities and vital for the protection of vulnerable coast lines.”

As the new director of the Rosenstiel School’s Gilbert and Nancy Voss Marine Invertebrate Collection—an internationally recognized, CITES-certified research museum for Atlantic tropical marine invertebrates—Traylor-Knowles is working to digitize the collection.

But to wage a successful battle against climate change and its debilitating effects on marine life, it will take more than laboratory research. “It will also take diverse perspectives from diverse people,” Traylor-Knowles said. And that’s one of the reasons she created BWEEMS (Black Women in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Science), a nonprofit that seeks to elevate the voices and innovations of women of color.

She started the organization three years ago in midst of the global pandemic, feeling as if she were the only Black woman working in the field of marine science. “I just knew that couldn’t be the case. There had to be others,” Traylor-Knowles said. So, she took to Twitter, sending out a call to connect with other Black women in her field. The response was overwhelming. Hundreds of women who identified as Black replied, many of them participating in online meetings as BWEEMS got underway.

This past January, more than 90 of the group’s members—marine scientists from six different countries, including one from Mozambique—met at the Rosenstiel School for three days of meetings, discussing ways to promote diversity in the sciences and participating in a beach cleanup.

“We’re inspiring a sisterhood through community and collaboration,” Traylor-Knowles said.