Brazil to Bermuda and Back Again

Last month BIOS welcomed postdoctoral researcher Samuel Faria (right) to the Reef Ecology and Evolution Laboratory, where he will be working alongside coral reef ecologist Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley. Faria, originally from Brazil, began his scientific career studying crustaceans along the Eastern coast of South America to determine how their physiologies evolved along with their movement into different habitats. 

Growing up on his parent’s coffee farm in Brazil, Samuel Faria didn’t spend much time thinking about the ocean. In fact, he wanted to work with teenagers as a high school teacher or college professor. When he was 8, his family moved to a small town in southeastern Brazil, which was his home until he began his undergraduate degree in biological sciences at the University of São Paulo. This is where his passion for science began, and also where he went on to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees in comparative biology.

In 2014, Faria’s wife, Laura Marangoni, also a coral scientist, attended a summer coral ecology course at BIOS. Three years later, when Faria decided to start a postdoc in coral physiology, he recalled his wife’s experience, visited the BIOS website, and connected with coral reef ecologist and faculty member Gretchen Goodbody-Gringley, who runs the Reef Ecology and Evolution Laboratory at BIOS. For the next 8 months he is working with Goodbody-Gringley, Carlos Navas at the University of São Paulo, and Ted Garland at the University of California at Riverside, on a project investigating how physiology, ecology and evolution are connected with climate change.

Faria, 32, came to BIOS in February, but began the project nearly 18 months ago at the University of São Paulo while working with the Coral Vivo Project, a non-profit organization that uses research and education to promote the conservation and sustainable use of Brazil’s coral reefs. With support from the Coral Vivo Project, he evaluated the eco-physiological responses of ten coral species to future climate change scenarios; specifically, increased temperature and lower pH.

By assessing their phylogeny, or evolutionary history, and a variety of physiological responses—including the density of symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae, chlorophyll concentration, respiration, calcification, and oxidative stress—he aims to reveal how individual corals are impacted and how their responses evolved along with changing environmental conditions.

With a scholarship from the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), he will spend the months ahead sampling 10 species of Bermuda corals and conducting laboratory investigations mirroring those he completed in Brazil. FAPESP is a public foundation, funded by taxpayers in São Paulo, with a mission to support research programs in higher education and research institutions. Faria received the competitive scholarship—whose applications are peer reviewed by panels of active scientific researchers—after submitting a research proposal with Navas.

“I chose to study corals from Brazil and Bermuda because they are so closely related in terms of evolution, but they occupy different marine environments,” Faria said. “This offers a unique opportunity for physiological and ecological comparison.”

In Brazil, the corals he sampled came from the eutrophic (having high nutrient levels) southernmost reefs in the western Atlantic Ocean, where there are high levels of sedimentation and turbidity and, in turn, low levels of light. In contrast, Bermuda, home to the northernmost coral reefs in the Atlantic Ocean, is characterized as an oligotrophic (relatively low nutrient levels) environment and has lower levels of sedimentation and turbidity and higher levels of light.

Faria will spend the next 8 months investigating how coral physiology, ecology, and evolution are connected with climate change. By comparing related corals found in different marine environments in Brazil and Bermuda, he hopes to determine how the corals' evolutionary histories impact their responses to changing environmental factors such as pH and water temperature.

Faria hypothesizes that corals from eutrophic environments may be more tolerant to climate change because they are less reliant on the photosynthetic zooxanthellae for energy. In higher ocean temperatures, zooxanthellae are often expelled from the corals in a process known as “bleaching.” If, as he predicts, eutrophic corals rely less on the algae for maintenance and growth, they may be more resilient when faced with a warming and acidifying ocean.

“Understanding how corals respond physiologically is imperative for understanding the effects of a changing climate on reef ecosystems,” Faria said. “By comparing their responses within an evolutionary framework, we may be able to look at certain physiological responses as markers of sensitivity. In effect, the past can be used to predict the future, which can assist with monitoring and conservation strategies.” 

Despite his recent work with corals, Faria actually began his career studying another type of invertebrate: crustaceans. For both his master’s and doctoral theses, he worked with John McNamara, professor of biology at the University of São Paulo, studying several shrimp and crab species along the eastern coast of South America. His work focused on how their physiologies evolved along with their movement into freshwater, terrestrial areas, and colder climates.

During his first postdoctoral appointment at Federal University of Rio Grande in Brazil, he evaluated how the physiological sensitivity in freshwater crabs is environmentally driven by metal concentrations, which highlighted the importance of evolutionary history in monitoring strategies. Afterward he decided to focus his research on corals to answer new questions relating to physiology, evolution, and habitat diversification.

Looking ahead, Faria would like to return to an academic setting and work as a university professor, as he is comfortable managing both research and teaching courses. During his postdoctoral work he has been teaching graduate courses in evolutionary physiology at various universities around Brazil, which he admits has been as much of a learning experience for him as for the students he teaches.