Deep dive into marine science: Dynamic duo boosts coral reef research at OIST

Podcaster discusses marine biodiversity research and threats to coral reefs with OIST marine scientists.

Header Podcast#2 Bioconvergence Center Satoh and Ravasi

DJ Nick Luscombe, podcaster-in-residence at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST), investigates the work of the Global Bioconvergence Center of Innovation, focusing on the themes of mental health, physical health, and environmental health, embodied in the center’s “One World, One Health” motto.  

In this second podcast episode, DJ Nick talks to Prof. Nori Satoh, leader of the Marine Genomics Unit, and Prof. Timothy Ravasi, leader of the Marine Climate Change Unit at OIST. They discuss their research on corals and coral reef fish in connection with the theme “environmental health”.

The researchers also talk about what inspired them to pursue research in their respective fields, a typical workday at OIST, and why Okinawa is an important location for coral reef research. 

Prof. Timothy Ravasi and Prof. Nori Satoh with DJ Nick Luscombe
Prof. Timothy Ravasi and Prof. Nori Satoh talk about their research on coral reefs at OIST with DJ Nick Luscombe.  

Research collaborations 

While Prof. Ravasi and Prof. Satoh focus on different research areas - Prof. Ravasi examines the impact of climate change on coral reef fish and Prof. Satoh works on decoding the genomes of coral species - their research techniques are very similar, and they often use the same samples. This collaboration produces research on both corals and coral reef fish, creating a fruitful research alliance at OIST.  

With his work often involving field trips on boats and underwater dives to collect fish, Prof. Ravasi frequently travels to exotic places like Palau, New Caledonia, and Papua New Guinea. To learn more about his recent expedition to Palau see here.  

Prof. Ravasi’s research work involves travelling to spectacular locations such as Nikko Bay in Palau
Prof. Ravasi’s research work involves travelling to spectacular locations, such as Nikko Bay in Palau, to learn what may happen to coral reef ecosystems in the future. Credit: Nicolas Job 

For Prof. Satoh, OIST’s supportive research environment, especially its genome sequencing facilities, have been instrumental in his team’s remarkable achievements. “In the last 10 years, my unit has published almost 12 or 13 marine genomes,” he explained.   

To support their research, the expertise of local Okinawans, particularly the relationships with fishermen, play a key role. The fishermen’s detailed records on coral planting and seaweed cultivation, and their knowledge of diverse marine activities, have been valuable resources. They also contact the researchers when in need of scientific assistance. For example, the Itoman Fishery tuna fishermen, requested their expertise in detecting microplastics in the tuna they catch. “They understand the problem, the anthropogenic impact, and they know OIST is well known in Okinawa; that we have the technology to help them,” Prof. Ravasi said. 

Helping preserve marine biodiversity 

By demonstrating the impacts of higher temperatures on coral reefs, the researchers hope to raise awareness and convince stakeholders and politicians to establish marine protected areas where fishing and tourism are restricted.   

Prof. Ravasi highlights that while climate change is a global issue, there are also local issues that people may not consider as much. In places like Okinawa and Japan, overfishing and coastal development, including building infrastructure and sea reclamation for seawalls, are significant problems. Another issue is runoff from farming. These problems are occurring right now and need urgent attention because of the risks they pose to coral reef ecosystems.  

We do not fully understand marine biodiversity compared to land ecosystems, especially before humans had an impact. This is mainly because assessing biodiversity in the ocean is much more difficult than on land. This challenge emphasizes the importance of conducting field research in ecosystems to measure and catalogue biodiversity - before we can accurately measure the impact of human activities and confirm the extinction of certain species due to these impacts, we first need to know what species exist. 

Future research 

There is a lot to look forward to in coral reef and marine biodiversity research. Prof. Satoh believes that environmental DNA barcoding is a powerful method for future research advancements. This process allows scientists to identify the species in a particular environment using DNA fragments. It is an exciting approach that could revolutionize our understanding of biodiversity and ecosystems. 

Both researchers believe that the relatively new concept of a “tropical seascape” is likely to be the next significant area of research for biodiversity and climate change. This approach goes beyond studying just land or sea ecosystems, and instead focuses on the seascape - understanding the interactions between land and sea habitats, including the actions of the people who live in and depend on these environments. 

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