Professor Gruber Probes Two Seas' Deepest Secrets

David Gruber David Gruber, assistant professor of biology and environmental science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center, spent last summer exploring the mysteries of deep coral reefs in the Caribbean and Red Seas. His work is part of a larger effort to protect and conserve coral reefs, which are highly endangered.

Gruber's goal was to understand the relationship and differences between the deep corals (at least 300 feet) and shallow corals. He collected samples off the coast of Little Cayman Island where corals are found at both depths, to examine molecular and physiological differences. He is also working to extract novel fluorescent proteins from the deep corals. So far, Gruber and his colleagues have discovered 28 of the roughly 130 known fluorescent proteins, which have become one of the most useful biomedical tools - leading to breakthroughs in AIDS and cancer research.

The aim of diving in the Red Sea was to undertake a cross-comparison of the Caribbean corals and understand how corals modify their calcification and physiology under climatic change. The ultimate goal for Gruber is to determine whether the deep coral reef will serve as refugia during global warming, as it has during normal glacial/interglacial cycles.

"I was amazed to see such different physiological adaptations among the deep corals," says Gruber, who collaborated on the project with an international team of scientists. "We know almost as little about the deep coral reef as we know about the moon."

Gruber's work has gained national recognition. On Oct. 1, Nature magazine highlighted new findings about the evolution of fluorescent proteins by Gruber and his colleagues. He is also among 13 young post-doctoral researchers in the country named to the first class of Ewing Marion

Kauffman Foundation fellows. Gruber's discoveries, according to the foundation, could have various practical and potentially profitable biomedical and drug applications.

"The new coral fluorescent proteins we've discovered have some very interesting properties, unlike those already known, that may illuminate neurological processes that have been studied only indirectly," says Gruber, who brought back with him samples of corals, hundreds of photos of the reefs and several hours of video. "It's always exciting to find fascinating fluorescing compounds in unlikely places."

View a slideshow on the Decade of Science page on Flickr ››

Text from salutetoscholars Winter 2010 edition

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