This expedition is part of a joint research effort of two ZMT research groups- the Coral Reef Ecology Group (CORE) and the Tropical Marine Microbiology Group – and the Coral Reef Genomics Lab of the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. The background of this expedition is the ZMT project - Combined Effects of Global and Local Stressors on Coral Reefs - (STRESSCORE). The research is carried out by the PhD students Claudia Pogoreutz (CORE) and Anny Cardenas (Tropical Marine Microbiology) and the Master student Nils Rädecker (CORE), under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Christian Wild, Dr. Astrid Gärdes (ZMT), and Ass. Prof. Dr. Christian Voolstra (KAUST). Several aspects make the settings for this project truly impressive: First, the Saudi Arabian coast of the central Red Sea harbours majestically beautiful, close-to-pristine coral reefs. Second, KAUST constitutes a recently founded university with state-of-the-art laboratories and facilities in close vicinity to a tropical ocean. Finally, KAUST is the first mixed-gender campus in Saudi Arabia, where women are allowed to mix freely with men.

Wrapping up

Unbelievable, but our final weeks at KAUST have arrived at last! While Nils and I will be leaving for Europe end of March and early April, respectively, Anny is going to stay until May to finish up her final measurements before heading back to Bremen.

Probably everybody who’s ever had a research stay abroad is familiar with the craziness of the final spurt. We are currently dealing with a diversity of tasks which need finishing up. Last week, Nils and I went to beautiful al Fahal reef for the last time to retrieve the PVC frames which were deployed at the beginning of our stay, and to collect some coral reef water to be used as inoculum for Anny’s final experiment (see below). Long story short, our last dives at al Fahal were almost dramatically beautiful, featuring young bottlenose dolphins curiously stalking and watching us schlepping PVC frames, two groups of in total 20 + magnificient bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum), several of the beautiful little blue-spotted stingrays (Taeniura lymma) for which al Fahal is almost famous for, an elegant eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari), and a smack of thousands of comb jellyfish glistening in the brightly lit shallows of the reef.

The rest of the week, Nils and I assisted Anny conducting her exciting main experiment on the effects of macroalgal exudates on coral reef bacterioplankton. This probably sounds like there is a huge lab-based component, which is true, but to even get this far a number of incredible challenges in field and wet lab have to be overcome first – we’ve probably caused a series of hysterical laughter in quite a few bystanders! Between gathering and transporting a wet mass of Halimeda and Caulerpa racemosa algae of about 15 kg from South Beach to the wet lab facilities (the girls only, mind – we accidentally picked Ladies Only Beach Day for the collection, so Nils wasn’t even allowed on the bus!), filtering the nastiest and smelliest algal exudates one can possibly imagine, (wo)manning one of the 300 mm high-throughput filtering stations of the Core Lab for Marine Operations and Research (CMOR) late at night, and conducting coral and inoculated filtered seawater incubations with the diluted exudates, we probably haven’t experienced a single second of boredom during the past few days. With the data gained from this experiment, Anny will hopefully be in for a highly productive and exciting time!

During the second half of February and the first two weeks of March, the coral fraction of the STRESSCORE team finished extracting DNA from all coral tissue samples, prepared stable isotope samples, extracted, stained, and enumerated the coral-associated dinoflagellates of the genus Symbiodinium and evaluated relative DNA and pigment content of these precious cells by means of fluorescence-activated cell-sorting (FACS) techniques. For the remaining time, Nils and I will be busy learning the basics of real-time PCR, tackling the final administrative steps for sample shipment, and – sadly – cleaning up our tanks and wet lab space.

The microbiology fraction of the team, Anny, spent most of the time getting the samples from the previous experiments ready, splitting her precious time between DNA extractions, cell counts, DOC measurements, rolling tank experiments and of course making some progress in bioinformatics, particularly in bioinformatics pipeline applications. For her remaining time in Saudi she will be focusing on processing the samples from the exudates experiment especially for RNA sequencing.
In a nutshell, our stay at KAUST has been a highly rewarding and nurturing time in many aspects for all of us. For instance, I arrived here with a background in ichthyology and biological monitoring methods, and will be coming out of this experience with solid hands-on experience in coral physiology and a basis in molecular techniques. Further, I learned a lot about logistics of field operations and designing, preparing, trouble-shooting, and conducting manipulative experiments featuring multiple response parameters. Finally, my time at KAUST was also a great opportunity for extending and strengthening my academic network by attending two conferences and by meeting up with visiting scientists.

The STRESSCORE team would like to sincerely thank a number of people who made and still make our efforts possible. First of all our supervisors Prof. Christian Wild and Dr. Astrid Gärdes from ZMT who sent us out on this exciting adventure, and our Co-supervisor Prof. Chris Voolstra for his continuous support and hospitality here in KAUST; the members of Chris’ Lab, particularly Camille Daniels, Anna Roik, Till Röthig, Maren Ziegler, Matt Neave and Stephan Kremb for their invaluable support; Paul Muller, Ramzi Aljahdali, Haitham Aljahdali, David Pallett, Frank Mallon, Ioannis Georgakakis, and Brian Hession from CMOR for their constant support with field and lab logistics; our skippers Ezam, Abdullah, Ghazi, and Mohammed from CMOR for taking us safely to the reef and back; and of course our colleagues from the Coral Reef Ecology Research Group (CORE) at ZMT, particularly Fritz, Hauke, Ulisse, Vanessa, Nanne, and Laura, who we repeatedly bugged about methodology or sample logistics. A big thanks to all of you!

On behalf of the STRESSCORE team,

Claudia Pogoreutz

Abu Dhabi

Just in case you were wondering: yes, the STRESSCORE team is actually still breathing! During the past couple of months, we conducted a new experiment on the effects of organic nitrogen on responses of the coral holobiont, and have continued processing samples from the first experiment. Further, we had to prepare for a great upcoming meeting here in Mideast.

Coral Reefs of Arabia Conference Trip (February 15 – 17, 2015)
Nils and Claudia were pretty excited after having received their respective letters of acceptance for the Coral Reefs of Arabia Conference hosted by Dr. John Burt and the New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Not only did we expect a great networking opportunity, but we were also looking forward to present our latest results to a wider audience.

We left for Abu Dhabi in a larger group with several members of the Reef Genomics Lab on the morning of Feb 14th and didn’t quite know what to expect, except perhaps a diverse plethora of sky scrapers. Abu Dhabi indeed turned out to be plentiful in the large buildings department, but the reception both at the Hotel as well as at the conference was warm and welcoming. The conference program covered a nice selection of research going on in the region, including ecology, microbiology, coral, symbiont, and fish physiology, sponge and Symbiodinium taxonomy, but also several contributions on remote sensing, geology, or the latest developments in seafloor mapping tools. We were particularly overwhelmed by all the positive feedback we received with respect to our project. Finally, we also would like to remark on the truly amazing catering at the meeting – we probably have managed to put on a couple of extra pounds during our brief stay!

We sincerely thank Dr. John Burt and the NYU for hosting this conference and for having us in Abu Dhabi. We really enjoyed the experience.

Warm wishes from Saudi Arabia,

Nils Rädecker and Claudia Pogoreutz

Another month has passed, and a good month it was indeed! We had the honour of attending two PhD defences (Dr. Chatchanit Arif and Dr. Lauren Yum – for pictures check out the News Section of the Reef Genomics Group) as well as this year’s Commencement Ceremony at KAUST.

Just in time for the vacation period, the STRESSCORE team has successfully completed all measurements and samplings for the first long-term experiment with Pocillopora verrucosa. In order to prepare for a brief (but well deserved) break, a lot of things still want attention. To keep a long story short: coral fragments need to be relieved from their duty as model organisms, aquarium tanks and maintenance systems need scrubbing and, yet again, setting up, field and lab benches need clearing, first data need an analysis, samples want to be stored properly to be processed in the new year, and last, but not least – visas need a renewal. One activity that proved to be the most fun was a photo session to compare control and treatment corals after 5 weeks of experimental manipulation. Our little photo studio– a 30 L aquarium tank, prepped with a few sheets of blank paper - was quickly set up on the dock next to the impressive research vessel R V Thuwal (see pictures).

We wish everybody a great Christmas, and a Happy New Year!
In behalf of the Saudi-bound STRESSCORE team,

Claudia Pogoreutz

The STRESSCORE team was not idle during the past couple of months, and even though we had to overcome a few challenges in the beginning and have to extend our stay until March 2015, our KAUST experience proves to be fruitful and nurturing. We are three weeks into our first long-term experiment with the rasp coral Pocillopora verrucosa, and actually quite pleased with our data. In September and October, we had the chance to meet with a few coral reef scientists collaborating with the Reef Genomics Lab. Further, we had the chance to attend the International Conference on the Marine Environment of the Red Sea (ICMERS) hosted by the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah earlier this month.

After we decided to reduce our field (i.e., reef) time to an absolute minimum to sample fresh specimens or reef water, our lab activity increased considerably. Besides measuring coral physiological and microbial properties in the wet lab, we have started our bench work in the Reef Genomics Lab. While Nils and Claudia are currently receiving a basic introduction to molecular techniques relevant for their research, Anny has accomplished her challenge of isolating bacterial mRNA from her first set of incubations using different carbon sources and demonstrating that not all adventures are happening in the field. Now she is eager to receive her first metatranscriptomics data as her early Christmas present!

While in other parts of the globe preparations for Christmas are well underway, obviously there is no evidence of this Christian festive season here in Saudi Arabia. However, we have been experiencing a very welcome change in the weather: since a couple of weeks, the occasional rain is falling over KAUST, and every now and then we encounter quite impressive thunderstorms. It is funny to see how a few months of perfect sunshine and life on a “desert campus” can change your perception of “good weather”!

One small thing at the end: Nils and Claudia recently joined a recreational dive trip to the famous Cement Reef (where Nils by the way saw a shark for the very first time – a small female white-tip reef shark!). The highlight of this dive spot is the wreck of a cargo ship heavy-laden with hundreds of cement bags sunken in the 70s of the 20th century. The content of the cement bags has long reacted chemically with the sea water and precipitated, and is providing a substrate for turf algae, hard and fire corals. The result is a bizarre seascape which seems to advertise: no matter the damage done by human hand, nature will claim its territory. If only this was true!

Best wishes from Saudi Arabia,

Anny Cardenas, Nils Rädecker and Claudia Pogoreutz

The third week of September was pretty exciting for all of us, as we had the pleasure of welcoming an eagerly expected visitor from home: our supervisor Prof. Christian Wild. Together with our Co-supervisor Chris Voolstra we made good use of these precious few days by evaluating our process so far (status: steady, and by no means disappointing!), and discussing the running lab trials and scheduled experiments and potential further side-projects. There was hardly any time to squeeze in a talk by Christian at the Red Sea Research Center seminar about the activities of the Coral Reef Ecology Group at the ZMT and past and ongoing collaborations with KAUST, but somehow, despite all the meetings and lab tours, everything just worked out nicely.

Talking about potential side-projects: one of these was particularly fascinating for Anny - we had already mentioned before the degraded lagoon side in a previous blog entry. Of course, degradation does attract microbiologists, no matter the scale of the process. As Christian was keen on seeing this field site with his own eyes before substantiating the idea for a potential side project, Anny and Nils took him there for a quick snorkeling trip, which resulted in a long and fruitful discussion on how to exploit this degraded site best for the sake of the joint project.

Obviously, hardworking people like us need well-deserved breaks from time to time – a few of us joined a weekend recreational dive trip to al-Lith at the world-famous Farasan banks. But no matter the nature of the dive, no matter if on a recreational or scientific dive, you may succeed in taking the marine biologist out of the ocean, but you can’t possibly take the ocean out of the marine biologist, and even the most hardcore reef scientist can’t help feeling amazed by diving Farasan Banks. Once again, we marveled at the incredible diversity of the benthic and fish community composition of Saudi Arabian Red Sea coral reefs (not to mention the fabulous encounters with marine megafauna, including bottlenose dolphins, false orca whales, silky sharks, hammerheads, and large bumphead parrotfish – safety stops in Saudi sure spoil divers for good). Particularly interesting for us was to see reefs with high dominance of our model hard coral species Seriatopora hystrix – while this delicate coral exhibits a comparatively cryptic life style at our collection site at al-Fahal, it occurs in large and refreshingly non-cryptic patches on the reefs we dove at the beautiful Farasan Banks!

In a nut-shell, Christian’s visit here at KAUST and the meetings together with him and Chris were fruitful for all of us. I would like to thank both for their invaluable time and input in behalf of the STRESSCORE team!

Best wishes from Saudi,

Claudia Pogoreutz


Days can be busy here in KAUST, now that we are in the middle of the preparations for our experiment. We have finally finished the set-ups for our first experiment, doing a test run for nitrogen fixation rate measurements as we speak, and are eager to start collecting our first data. If plans work out, we’ll start the first experiment this weekend. This is just in time to impress our supervisor Christian Wild, who will be arriving for a brief visit on Monday next week.

In the meanwhile we had a chance to enjoy the benefits of being part of the KAUST community. It has been five years since KAUST first opened its gates to students from all around the world. Of course, a 5 year anniversary merits celebration. KAUST wouldn’t be KAUST, if this celebration wouldn’t be impressive... and impressive it was indeed.

For one evening the entire harbour walk transformed into a huge fair. Everyone was invited to enjoy free food, games, light shows and music entertainment all night long. Obviously, we had to use this chance to eat enough to last us for the remaining 5 months to come. Although we probably all gained some extra pounds that night, we sure don’t regret all the tasty food and the fun we had!

Nils Rädecker

Quite some time has passed since the last blog entry. In the meanwhile, a lot has happened. Claudia has received reinforcement from Germany about two weeks ago: The PhD student Anny Cárdenas from the Tropical Marine Microbiology (TMM) group and the master student Nils Rädecker from the Coral Reef Ecology Group have arrived on August 7 early in the morning. The facilities for our lab experiments have been set up (big thanks to Paul Muller from the Marine Operations Unit here at KAUST!); after weeks of insane administrative steps to organize logistics, a lot of lab equipment is currently being shipped to Saudi Arabia (big thanks to Hauke Schwieder from TMM, Andreas Petermann from ZMT Infrastructure, Camille Daniels from the KAUST Coral Reef Genomics group, and numerous staff of the research logistics group for your efforts!).

Another set of stony corals, more specifically staghorn corals (Acropora hemprichi) and Bird’s Nest corals (Seriatopora histrix) have been collected, fragmented and attached to tiles and are currently recovering in the lab. Of course, we also had some setbacks. The set of rasp corals for the first field experiments have suffered severe bleaching, but aren’t dead yet, and our staghorns have had severe mortality. Small challenges like these keep us busy over here each day, and we probably haven’t suffered a single minute of boredom over here (well, maybe during the mandatory lab safety sessions). Experiments can be challenging to organize and things can get messy sometimes. However, this is what makes them so exciting after all, and hopefully our hard work will be rewarded with great results in the upcoming months.

In the meantime, Nils and Anny have also had a chance to get to know KAUST a little better. There are lots of new people to meet and things to discover. From insanely well-equipped labs to movies (in the only Saudi Arabian cinema!) in the evening, everything is impressive. The same accounts for Al-Fahal, our study side. With dolphins encircling our boat and plenty of fish buzzing around in the reef, we quickly understood why diving in Saudi is considered to be among the best in the world. Particularly Anny, who completed her Open Water Diver license only recently here in KAUST, and did not have any previous experience diving in the beautiful Red Sea before, knew that she would have the opportunity to dive in a truly amazing place. However, she did not expect it would happen that soon (thanks to Till Röthig, Arpys Arevalo and Phil Vignal). Despite the fact that most of her work will take place on a lab bench, she is not sad, though, considered how well-equipped these benches are! Anny will soon report more on her exciting studies on the transformation of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) by bacterioplankton communities on tropical coral reefs.

One more thing about research: We were thrilled to have found a so-called phase shift reef site. This site is a degraded former lagoon patch reef that has been transformed into an algae-dominated habitat, which is characterized by high prevalence of fleshy algae and cyanobacterial mats, and loss of corals and crustose coralline algae. While phase shifts of course are not a good thing – coral reefs that have undergone such a phase shift do not go back to their original pristine state - this particular phase-shift site is an excellent opportunity for all of us to explore the repercussion of algal dominance in different aspects of coral reef ecology.

And finally, we were able to make our first proper Saudi experience: For the first time we finally got to leave the sheltered campus of KAUST to buy some new equipment for the experiments (and to enjoy some leasure time). On our daytrips to Jeddah we explored a whole new world, which is very different to the life here at KAUST. Bazars, traffic jams and first class Arabic food offered some insights into the real Saudi Arabia. These trips also reminded us of the privileges we enjoy here at KAUST, being able to do our fieldwork in such a special environment without the restrictions that locals are still facing on an every-day-base.

Best wishes from Saudi Arabia!

Anny Cardenas (WG Tropical Marine Microbiology), Nils Rädecker and Claudia Pogoreutz (WG Coral Reef Ecology)

The deed is done! The first coral fragments are waiting at Al-Fahal to heal until our experiments start. With the help of a number of volunteers, Till Röthig, Lauren Yum, and Anna Roik, all PhD students in Chris Voolstra’s lab, the corals have been fragmented and deployed carefully on PVC frames in the reef. During the next few weeks, I will go back to the field several times to check on our little pets, to assist the herbivorous fish in removing algae as well as other nuisances that might prove not to be beneficial in the healing process of the corals, and, if necessary, to fragment some more colonies. Further, I am planning to do a first proper assessment of the resident herbivorous fish fauna at Al-Fahal, more specifically the most abundant species of parrot fish and surgeon fish.

In the meanwhile, I won’t get bored – there are still a lot of things to organise back on land. Outdoor lab facilities need setting up, some final items want to be ordered, ideas for small side projects keep bugging me at the back of my mind, and last but not least administrative procedures for visa extensions need my constant attention. I’ll keep you updated on the more fun bits of my work here at KAUST!

Hi, my name is Claudia. I have recently left for Saudi Arabia to arrange everything for the arrival of my co-workers Anny and Nils and the start of our joint experiments in August this year. “Everything” includes getting to know procedures at KAUST, sorting out a variety of issues regarding material, lab, and field work, and – the part which is obviously most appealing – preparing and setting up the field experiments. No worries, I am not an academic heroine who has to fight this battle on her own - while I enjoy loads of support from numerous KAUST staff in organising the Saudi end of our project, Anny and Nils are busy in Bremen with customs, packing, shipping, and lab trials in the ZMT Marine Experimental Ecology Unit (MAREE) to figure out the best approach to simulate organic nutrient enrichment, and to evaluate field applicability. Obviously I got lucky to do the fun stuff!

To a tropical marine ecologist with a background in making do with poor to non-existent lab and field facilities, KAUST feels like a huge playground for researchers. During my stay, I will have the opportunity to become proficient in a range of methods to complement my planned physiological and biogeochemical measurements with microbial community data. The response parameters for this study were selected from a multidisciplinary background in order to create a more holistic experimental design.

Tomorrow, my field work will be starting officially on the close-to-pristine midshore reef Al-Fahal (“the giant”). The reef is located about 13 km off the Saudi Arabian Red Sea coast. While there is evidence for fishing pressure on the reef, nutrient concentrations are low. The plan is to deploy PVC frames on the reef, collect and fragment colonies of the rasp coral (Pocillopora verrucosa), and attach the fragments on the frames to let them heal until our experiments start. Once the corals have healed an appropriately long period of time, our simulations of multiple anthropogenic stressors, more specifically overfishing and elevated nutrient concentrations, can start.

Claudia Pogoreutz (WG Coral Reef Ecology)