By Katie Worth

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News Dec. 17) - The world's coral reefs are dying, and scientists are on Guam to figure out why.

A top scientist at Johns Hopkins University and the president of a biotech firm visited Guam recently to collect coral samples to study what factors may be contributing to their decline.

The results could be used as a model for resource managers and oceanographers in Guam and all over a world.

Visiting Gary Ostrander, the associate dean for research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and one of the top biomedical researchers in the field, was accompanied to Guam by Craig Downs, the president of biotech firm EnVirtue Biotechnologies, Inc., out of Virginia. The two scientists joined University of Guam professor Bob Richmond.

The coral samples collected by the three researchers will be run through a series of tests that can determine whether they have been exposed to toxins in their lifespan, even if those toxins are long gone, Ostrander said.

This is possible, he said, because when coral is exposed to a toxin, it creates a protein to get rid of it. Even after the animal has excreted the toxin in some way, it's possible to tell that the protein was activated.

To explain, Richmond gave the illustration of a switchboard or a fuse box. If there is a problem with the electricity, he said, you can go to the fuse box and tell which fuse has blown. Similarly, he said, when a protein is activated to help excrete a toxin, a gene that was never used before is "turned on" and that switch can be detected.

Downs' firm is able to take the coral samples and run a long series of tests to determine which toxins they have been exposed to.

The team is working on research to be able to detect how much of a toxin a coral has been exposed to as well, Richmond said.

Richmond likened the research to "Dr. Dolittle science," because it allows the researchers to figure out what the animal itself is experiencing, rather than making assumptions based on what the researchers believe may be in the environment.

The research has enormous implications, Richmond said, because it could help governments and resource managers make decisions, and could even stand in court.

"It gives you a smoking gun," said Richmond.

Ostrander gave an example: Say a golf course close to a coral reef uses pesticides and a conflict arises about whether the pesticides are affecting the reef. Samples of the coral could be tested to determine whether the reef has been exposed to the pesticides and, possibly, how many pesticides. The results could either conclude in the resource manager having the tools to force the golf course to change its pesticide-use practices, or, alternatively, with the golf course able to prove the pesticide use is not affecting the reef, he said.

Guam is an ideal place to do the research because it still has maintained a significantly diverse reef and also because the reef has been exposed to many different toxins, Ostrander said. An even more crucial advantage, he said, is that Richmond's research has resulted in a vast knowledge of the local reefs and the toxins certain areas have been exposed to.

The relevance of the research has caused it to be in demand all over the world, Ostrander said.

"Other places want us to be doing this research there, like the country of Bermuda wants us to do the same thing in Bermuda. But we're doing it here first," Ostrander said. "This could really set a precedent."

December 17, 2003

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