WOODS HOLE, Mass. — Philippe Laissue of University of Essex, U.K., a Whitman investigator at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), has won first place in the Nikon Small World in Motion Competition, one of the world’s largest and most prestigious scientific video competitions.
Laissue’s beautiful, winning video shows one of the tiny organisms that build a coral reef – called a polyp — emerging in low light. Also visible are the photosynthetic algae that live inside the coral, in a mutually beneficial relationship.Coral reefs, made up of millions of polyps, are extremely important ecosystems, both for marine life and for humans. They harbor thousands of marine species, providing food and economic support for hundreds of millions of people. They also protect coasts from waves and floods, are highly valued tourist destinations, and hold great potential for pharmaceutical and biotechnological discovery.
But more than half of the world’s coral reefs are in severe decline, and all but the most remote reefs will be impacted in the next 50 years. Climate change and other human influences are gravely threatening their survival.
Staghorn corals, which Laissue studies, are important reef builders. They do not, however, like bright light. Laissue had to build a bespoke light-sheet fluorescence microscope to allow gentle observation of their emerging polyps, which he imaged at University of Essex, where he is a Lecturer in Bioimaging.
“Dimming the light has enabled me to show the coral’s dynamics close up, and illustrate the beauty and otherworldliness of these ancient organisms,” says Laissue. “At the same time, we can collect important information about what is happening on the cellular level when corals react to different environmental conditions. This helps us to better understand corals and their development, thus contributing to finding the best strategies to protect and conserve them.”
Laissue has been coming regularly to the MBL for research since obtaining a Whitman Center Fellowship in 2017. He collaborates with MBL Associate Scientist Loretta Roberson and MBL Fellow Amy Gladfelter to study the local cold water coral, Astrangia poculata. He is also continuing development of the light-sheet microscope he used for the winning video with MBL-CZI Imaging Scientist Abhishek Kumar and MBL Fellow Hari Shroff.
Says Laissue, “The MBL has a unique combination of environmentally relevant model organism resources, widespread and in-depth imaging expertise, experimentally diverse approaches, and the combined interdisciplinary knowledge to tie all these aspects together. It is an honour and a pleasure to be part of the MBL community.”
The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery – exploring fundamental biology, understanding marine biodiversity and the environment, and informing the human condition through research and education. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888, the MBL is a private, nonprofit institution and an affiliate of the University of Chicago.