Collaborative Research: Artificial Coral

Project: Research project

Project Details


This collaborative project develops coral-inspired artificial cells and studies the interactions between these artificial hosts and living algae. Coral reefs are the accumulated mineral skeletons of living coral organisms. Their color comes from symbiotic algae that live inside the corals and are important to their survival. Coral bleaching is the loss of these internalized algae. Improved basic understanding of coral-algae symbioses is needed to predict and combat the effects of climate change on coral reefs and associated fisheries, but the complexity of living symbiotic systems complicates study. This project is developing artificial corals that serve as simple, nonliving model "organisms" as a beginning point to dissect the biological chemistry of the coral-algae relationship. The project also convenes public deliberations with diverse groups to learn more about the American public’s perceptions of the social and environmental benefits and risks posed by construction of such artificial coral in a time of rapid climate change. These deliberations provide an evidence base for reflection, among scientists and engineers, about the implications of designer cell construction and for science in society education of designer cell scientists-in-training, lay publics, K-12 students, and policymakers.Two types of artificial coral cells, designed to capture key functions of coral, are being constructed by bottom-up assembly from nonliving molecular parts. The first, inspired by coral's oral gastroderm cells, is designed to participate in a symbiotic relationship with living dinoflagellate algae. The second is designed to deposit mineral skeletons, as do the coral calicobastic cells. The project has four objectives: 1) Capture and maintenance of living algal cells within artificial symbiosome vacuoles; 2) Construct a mineralization-capable artificial calicoblastic compartment; 3) Combine the artificial cells of objectives 1 and 2 to obtain live algal symbiosis that combines photosynthesis and calcification; 4) Convene public deliberative groups that concurrently explore perceptions of artificial coral, comparative synthetic cells, bottom-up synthetic biology, and the US innovation system. These nonliving artificial coral cells provide a new platform for probing crucial aspects of the coral-algae mutualism responsible for coral reefs by greatly simplifying host biochemistry.This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.
Effective start/end date7/15/236/30/26


  • National Science Foundation: $792,490.00


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