Steve Vollmer, assistant professor of marine and environmental sciences, Marine Science Center

Coral reefs are essential habitats for fish, and understanding what makes them resilient is crucial to their conservation. 

One common threat is white-band disease, which has caused massive reef die-offs in the Caribbean. It manifests as a white strip of dead and dying tissue that creeps up the trunk of a living coral. Little was known about what causes the disease—until recently. 

In 2011, Vollmer’s team established that the pathogen is likely a type of bacterium, not a virus. Vollmer has since launched a multiyear study looking at hundreds of corals, both healthy and diseased. His team is using next-generation gene sequencing to identify the various bacteria that live on corals, and the team has already homed in on two bacteria types that may be causing the white-band disease specifically. 

Vollmer hopes the gene-sequencing work will also help determine why some corals are resistant to the disease, while others succumb.