Along U.S. Route 1, about halfway between Key Largo and Key West, sits an unassuming yet premiere research facility helping solve some of the most pressing threats facing the world’s marine ecosystems.
The Keys Marine Laboratory (KML) is a full-service marine field station in the middle of one of the most biologically-diverse marine environments in the world. On one side sits the Gulf of Mexico – on the other side, the Atlantic Ocean. This natural proximity provides KML’s visiting-scientists and students with a unique opportunity to study and conduct research in two distinctly different bodies of water.
Hosted by the University of South Florida, KML is operated by the Florida Institute of Oceanography, a consortium made up of universities and institutions from across Florida. While the laboratory is not technically part of USF – the university maintains and supports the facility's day-to-day operation, allowing USF researchers, and others from around the world, the chance to utilize its unique capabilities.
Along with KML’s proximity to two distinct coastlines, the lab itself is equipped to provide researchers with many of the traditional laboratory tools needed in their work. Along with classroom and office space, users have access to comprehensive dry labs, research vessels and on-site dormitories.
KML’s wet lab allows scientists the ability to mimic and manipulate sea-water to simulate a variety of real-world conditions. This state-of-the-art capability gives researchers and students the chance to study how organisms are impacted by various changes in their ecosystem, including changes in ocean acidification, temperature and more.
“One thing that we can do here that is unique, particularly for a field station, is the capability to conduct research at the organismal level, and even smaller, as well as on the ecosystem level,” said Keys Marine Lab Director Nancy Thompson, PhD. “And because of our location in the middle of the Keys, researchers can access multiple sites for field work. Those capabilities make us extremely unique and have contributed to the interest people have in coming to the lab.”
One such researcher currently working at KML is Karen Neely, PhD, a coral ecologist at Nova Southeastern University, an FIO-member institution. Neely, in collaboration with other colleagues, is working to better understand and mitigate a destructive coral disease currently decimating Florida’s entire reef tract.
KML Deputy Director Cynthia Lewis, PhD, says Stony Coral Tissues Loss Disease (SCTLD) is one of the largest and most devastating reef disease epidemics ever seen.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Lewis, an expert in corals and coral biology. “It’s impacting 22 of the 43 major reef building species off our coastline and it’s the longest lasting reef disease epidemic on record – worldwide. It’s been going on non-stop since 2014, which is just unheard of.”
Lewis says the disease is particularly challenging due the elusive nature of identifying the causative pathogens and to its lack of seasonality, allowing it to flourish and spread year-round. Pair that with SCTLDs high mortality rate and efficient transmission mechanism, and the disease is capable of spreading at a rate of more than an inch per day. But while the disease continues to wreak havoc on Florida’s prized coral reefs, researchers are making progress in their efforts to slow its progress.
“These coral reefs are hugely important to the overall ecosystems in these areas,” Lewis said. “Once the corals on the reef die, it then biodegrades leaving the animals that live around these reefs with no homes or protection. Thankfully, research has aided in the development of antibiotic treatments which are currently being deployed with KML support.”
The lab’s capabilities have allowed scientists like Neely the chance to not only study the disease in the controlled environment of the KML sea water system but maintain convenient access to many of the hardest hit reef sites. This unique combination is helping researchers gain the upper hand, thanks to mission support from a group of former military divers.
Since December 2018, divers with Force Blue have been in the Keys administering antibiotics directly to the infected corals, under Neely’s direction. A nonprofit organization, Force Blue helps veterans’ transition back into civilian life. The reef recovery project has provided vets with an out-of-service mission they can positively impact, giving them a sense of purpose.
“The dive expertise and abilities of these veteran divers really makes this work possible,” Lewis said. “The divers have treated over 1,000 coral heads and over 5,000 disease lesions in the last five months, spanning a distance of 125 miles of reef.”
In June, Force Blue divers successfully completed their 50th day of in-water operations. While the research and recovery work will continue, scientists say the dive effort has given the reef sites a real chance of survival.
To learn about other research projects and opportunities available at the Keys Marine Laboratory, visit their website.