By Natalie Saleh

“A lot of people think bacteria are these bad terrible things that hurt us, but the vast majority of microbes are not bad. The vast majority of microbes could be described as good in a lot of ways,” says Ryan McMinds, a microbiology graduate student at Oregon State University and one of the members of the Global Coral Microbiome Project.

Understanding “Good Bacteria” in Coral

McMinds has travelled all over the world, studying the microbiomes of corals, from Saudi Arabia to Australia to the Virgin Islands, but  now he can most often be found working in the Rebecca Vega Thurber lab on campus.

McMinds’ work is essential in furthering our understanding of why coral reefs are being wiped out all over the world, so further destruction of coral reefs can be mitigated. To understand this issue, Vega Thurber’s lab is approaching the study of coral in a way that has never been done before.  

“A lot of previous research has focused on model species, and how environmental stressors might change microbes. What we want to do is expand this research to include the diversity of coral species. There’s about 350 million years’ worth of divergence within corals, and there are dozens and dozens of genera and species. Nobody has ever looked at them comparatively to see how different groups of corals have differently structured microbes,” says McMinds.

Despite how many coral reefs have deteriorated in the past few decades, scientists have been unable to identify the bacterial pathogens that have caused many of these diseases. Scientists have conducted a lot of research in pursuit of these bacteria, but even for each individual disease, the problem seems to be too complex to be explained by one bacterium.

To further this research, McMinds and the team are studying the “good” bacteria that do things like provide nutrients or defend the coral from potentially “bad” bacteria. A lack of these “good” bacteria could be the missing factor contributing to the destruction of the coral reefs.

Reaching Outside Academia

Beyond being an experienced researcher, McMinds is passionate about finding ways to reach out to people beyond the academic science community to share the knowledge he and his team are uncovering.

“We are getting the word out, educating people, just letting people know what’s happening. We are trying to do it in a way that’s trustworthy, directly from the source, not muddled by a third-party media. Getting the word out is extremely important if we want to save these reefs,” says McMinds.

McMinds and the team have partnered with videographers who accompany them on some of their trips across the world, like Lizard Island, The Red Sea, Varadero and Mo’orea, and document their work, 

“They’re interviewing the locals in a lot of these places, showing that this problem is not just about a pretty reef ecosystem. These are the livelihoods of millions of people around the globe, directly relying on coral reefs. As the entire ecosystem is disappearing, so are millions of people’s livelihoods. That’s scary,” says McMinds.

Microbiology pervades our lives. The research McMinds and other microbiologists are conducting can help us understand our connection to each other and the environment that surrounds us.

To see visualizations of what our connection to the microbiome looks like, attend To See the Unseen at The Arts Center from April 13 to May 27. Heres a link for more information