Discovering Deep-Sea Corals of the Phoenix Islands 2

SOI / ROV SuBastian

In 2017, Falkor voyaged to the southern half of the Phoenix Islands Archipelago, to the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) with an interdisciplinary team of scientists. The goal was to explore and document never before seen deep-sea ecosystems of PIPA. PIPA is the largest and deepest of the UNESCO World Heritage sites and the first internationally recognized Marine Protected Area (MPA) to be established by a least developed nation– The Republic of Kiribati. The team of scientists worked alongside Kiribati to classify the abundance of deep-sea biodiversity that PIPA holds. The revelations the science team made with the data they collected in PIPA were plentiful.

In June, Falkor will return to the Phoenix Islands Archipelago under Chief Scientist Randi Rotjan, this time working in the Northern section of the Phoenix Islands in US waters: the Howland and Baker unit of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMNM). Rotjan’s team is brimming with questions and their scientific objectives include continuing to investigate deep-sea microbes’; examining how ancient cold water corals survive predation by corallivores; and enquiring into the equator’s effect on the ecology of deep coral and sponge communities. The Howland and Baker unit of the United States Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument (PRIMNM) is a neighboring MPA to PIPA and part of the same archipelago. The Phoenix Archipelago (both PIPA and PRIMNM) straddles equatorial waters. Both PIPA and PRINMN offer a glimpse into the deep sea’s natural processes in a relatively untouched part of the ocean, given their status as remote marine protected areas.

To fully complement the exploration of the Phoenix Islands, the team will also venture into Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJs)– parts of the ocean which no one country controls. Their goal is to map and dive on unexplored seamounts, and investigate the biodiversity that the High Seas may hold.

Healing from Open Wounds
Corallivory is the term for predation upon live corals. Organisms like fish and invertebrates can eat the tissue, skeleton, and mucus of the coral colony. The coral usually survives the interaction but is left with an open wound. While these encounters are well studied in shallow coral reefs, little is known about how deep-sea corals respond to wound infliction by their predators.

Deep-sea corals are slow-growing, adapted to thrive under incredible pressure and darkness, and live for hundreds to thousands of years. How they are able to do so while also sustaining external damage and fending off microbial infection is a question Rotjan and her team hope to answer. Understanding how deep-sea corals’ immune systems respond to physical damage from their predators will provide insight into deep-sea coral health and is important knowledge that may give insight into the evolution of our own immune systems.

Benign Bacteria
During the 2017 expedition, Anna Gauthier, a Ph.D. student on the science team co-mentored by Rotjan and Kagan, attempted to culture microbes found during the ROV dives in PIPA while on-ship.  Her culture collection included bacteria from the sediment, the corals, the water column, and even the intestine of a seastar. Her efforts yielded over 200 new species of bacteria; an incredible and important discovery because all 200 of them have novel lipopolysaccharide (LPS) structures. LPS structures make up the fatty outer membrane of cell-walled bacteria and are commonly used in the development of novel human therapeutics. 

Innate immunity is the immune system mammals are born with and is the first line of defense in protecting the body against pathogens. The rules of mammalian innate immunity state that humans should be able to universally detect microbes in our environment unless they are specifically co-evolved to evade detection, for example, microbes that are either beneficial or harmful. Co-evolved microbes include gut bacteria which help us digest our food and Streptococcus bacteria which causes strep throat.

A New Discovery
Until the discovery by Gauthier, Kagan, Tekiau, Rotjan, and others, scientists believed microbes were globally detectable by mammalian immune systems. However, when these deep-sea microbial LPS were tested on mice and human cells, the cells were unable to detect them. In laboratory tests, mammalian immune systems treated them as if they were as benign as a water molecule, which has massive implications for the development of novel therapeutics and necessitates a revision of mammalian innate immunity. It is now clear that the rules of mammalian innate immunity are locally (not globally) defined. In other words, mammals will detect the microbes we interact with, but may not universally be able to detect microbes from foreign environments like the deep-sea.

The investigation into deep-sea microbes will continue on this expedition; this time the team will culture and test the response of deep-sea corals to diverse bacteria while at sea. They will continue to question the universality of immune theory by examining how deep-sea microbes interact with novel cells. The potential outcomes help to further justify the importance of marine conservation for the future of healthy ecosystems, and healthy humans.

A Truly Collaborative Team
PIPA was originally conceived as a “gift to humanity” from Kiribati, but until 2017, the deep sea remained a wrapped present. Now, several deep-sea expeditions later, and with previous work in the region by Rotjan, Shank, Auscavitch, Kennedy, Gauthier, Cordes, and others, it is clear that PIPA harbors a stunning diversity of colorful deepwater corals, sponges, and other invertebrates, as well as a suite of unknown bacteria with transformative potential for human medicine. The science team on Falkor will be working to achieve complementary goals that include describing new species of coral and invertebrates that live among them; characterizing patterns of corallivory from deep-sea transects; at-sea microbial and corallivory experiments; and simultaneously characterize the deep-sea environment of the full Phoenix Islands archipelago.

Though the team will be working only in US waters this trip, the team also includes a Kiribati collaborator on board, who will assist with the science. The relationship with this special no-take MPA genuinely showcases the importance and value of scientific collaboration and international partnership. It is in this collaborative spirit that the US-Kiribati team heads to United States waters to complement previous work in Kiribati waters, with a long science to-do list that will shed light on this critical ecosystem.

Hard corals in the deep sea are biodiversity multipliers, hosting a diversity of seastars, crinoids, urchins, and other taxa along the vertical cliffs of an ancient volcano in the equatorial Pacific waters of the Phoenix Islands Protected Area.
Anna Gauthier preserves a sample with liquid nitrogen.
The ghost of an 80million year old volcano leave an atoll behind at Nikumaroro
A bluntnose sixgill shark cruising deep in PIPA waters.
A little Halloween spirit in the control room
Two large (2m wide) Plexaurid Corals with brittle stars on Orona Atoll.

Data & Publications

Raw environmental sensor data has been curated and archived at Rolling Deck to Repository.

Acoustic Backscatter from R/V Falkor and CTD, event logging, navigation, and imagery from ROV SuBastian have been curated and archived at MGDS.

Raw genetic sequence data on the microbial community structure and composition across depths at sites in the vicinity of the Phoenix Islands has been archived at the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

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