The Red Sea

Thuwal, Saudi Arabia

The Red Sea separates continents and feeds nations. It ancient enough to be featured in the old stories of the great religions, but geologically young enough to be growing, widening and transforming every year. Its beauty is deceptive, so much lying below the surface where baroque towers of colorful corals rise from the bottom and great fish emerge from its blue depths. It draws the curious and inquisitive from around the world to explore its diversity and study its complexity and look for clues to the health and survival of the reefs and the people around the world that depend on them.

“If we lose these really diverse environments, we lose the microbes that go along with them.”
— Ryan McMinds | Ph.D. Student | College of Science

Ryan McMinds and Jesse Zaneveld traveled from Oregon to Saudi Arabia to study the microbes that living in the coral reefs off of its Red Sea coastline. What they discover in these microbes may hold the key to the understanding and survival of tropical corals around the world.

“It’s a very warm sea. It’s a very young sea. We can essentially follow the evolutionary trajectory of what organisms did to survive here,” says Christian Voolstra, whose lab at KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) is hosting the OSU scientists. While climate change pushes ocean temperatures higher around the globe, healthy reefs still manage to thrive here, making it an ideal natural laboratory. “In a way, you can relate to the Red Sea as a future ocean scenario.”

McMinds and Zaneveld will take their data back to Oregon State, part of the Global Coral Microbiome Project in Rebecca Vega-Thurber’s lab, an ambitious effort to create a global picture of reef microbiology.

“Microbes are the absolute best chemists out there.”
— Kerry McPhail | Associate Professor | College of Pharmacy

Kerry McPhail’s work has carried her to the Red Sea and beyond, searching for clues in the microbial chemistry of coral reefs that could hold the secrets to new drugs. “Their chemistry is unlike anything synthetic chemists can really think of without inspiration.”

This inspiration is used to discover new drugs that may solve the greatest threats to human health. And communicating the life-saving potential that’s hidden in the microscopic world of tropical corals may help preserve these threatened habitats.

KAUST, the King Abdulla University of Science and Technology, is a beacon of learning in the heart of the Islamic World. The late king who devoted his personal resources to its creation decreed that it be constructed in ‘a thousand days.’ Constructed almost overnight on a remote stretch of coastline where desert meets sea, scholars and students now come from all over the world to study in its monumental buildings and state-of-the-art labs.

KAUST is an entire town, complete with health clubs, supermarkets, restaurants, luxurious student and faculty housing, a lighted golf course and one of the few movie theaters in the Kingdom. But the main draw is the science and its most impressive resource is the Red Sea that lies just off shore and sports an impressive collection of “home reefs” that give researchers unparalleled access to coral habitats.