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The armillary sphere sculpture at Old Main on the University Park campus.

LaJeunesse awarded Maskalick Biodiversity Seed Grant

8 November 2022

Todd LaJeunesse, professor of biology at Penn State, was recently awarded the David G. Maskalick and Kathleen A. Maskalick Biodiversity Healthcare Seed Grant by the Eberly College of Science Office for Innovation.

The Maskalick Biodiversity Healthcare Seed Grant Program is designed to provide financial support to researchers collecting preliminary data and to stimulate research on biodiversity in the college. David Maskalick, a 1978 graduate in biochemisty, and Kathleen Maskalick established the program to promote the protection of biodiversity and support the prevention of mass extinctions on earth.

Grants from the program will aim to further knowledge regarding the health and survival of all life and natural resources, humanity, and commerce. LaJeunesse was awarded the grant for his project titled: “Investigation into and Characterization of Host-Generalist and Host-Specialist Coral Endosymbionts,” which is led by graduate student Caleb Butler.

This biodiversity grant provided funds for laboratory supplies and travel costs to Palau to study coral biodiversity and its physiological ecology to better understand the function of the single-celled organisms that live with the corals and how they are critical for conservation efforts and forecasting the future of reef-building corals and the ecosystems they construct.

Todd LaJeunesse collects coral fragments and Caleb Butler processes coral samples
Left: Todd LaJeunesse collecting fragments of coral from a shallow reef flat in Palau. Credit: Kira Turnham. Right: Caleb Bulter (center) with colleagues from University of Alabama, Birmingham processing coral samples in the Rock Island habitats of Palau. Credit: Todd LaJeunesse.

“We are grateful for this funding,” said LaJeunesse. “As one of the leading laboratories in the world conducting this research, trips to places like Palau are precious opportunities. These additional funds help maximize our efforts and the quality of science that we are able to achieve. Our efforts to accurately resolve the diversity of symbionts critical to coral health are leading to breakthroughs in understanding about their capacity to endure and adapt to climate change.”

Research in the LaJeunesse lab focuses on the evolutionary ecology of mutualistic symbioses, interactions between two or more species where each species benefits, mainly the associations between corals and the single-celled dinoflagellates that live within their tissues. These associations form the basis of one of the most biologically diverse and threatened marine ecosystems on the planet. Through the use of various genetic-based approaches in laboratory and field settings they examine ecological, biogeographic, and phylogenetic patterns in order to deduce fundamental ecological and evolutionary processes. The research seeks to understand how coral communities globally are responding ecologically and evolutionarily to climate warming. The symbionts of corals, Symbiodinium, are ideal for examining broader questions about microbial biodiversity, clonality, sexual recombination, dispersal, speciation, and ecological/physiological specialization, among other topics.

Prior to joining the faculty at Penn State, LaJeunesse was an assistant professor at Florida International University and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Georgia from 2000 to 2004. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Cornell University in 1991 and a doctoral degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2000.