Oceans cover about 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface and marine organisms play an important role in combatting climate change as they absorb greenhouse gases such as CO2. For this issue, The Medium sat down with Dr. Azizur Rahman, a senior research scientist at the University of Toronto, to discuss how coralline algae is able to fight climate change.
Rahman states that “coralline algae is a very abundant species [found] under the ocean” and forms a strong skeleton on the sea floor. To determine “how the skeleton forms under the sea [and] why it is very strong,” Rahman led a team of researchers from UTM, UTSC, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and Australian National University to examine the molecular mechanisms involved.
Rahman and his team “harvested [the coralline algae] from Newfoundland and Labrador” and conducted “in vitro experiments where [they mimicked] the water composition and water chemistry of the ocean in their laboratory.” They were able to discover that chitin was a key player in the formation of coralline algae’s skeleton. As Rahman explains, “chitin is a polymer, and [while it] is used for medical purposes, cleaning water, [and] for fertilizer, this is the first time it has been identified as being involved in forming the skeleton under the sea.”
Another interesting question Rahman sought to answer was why coralline algae was not susceptible to bleaching—a common disease affecting coral—and ocean acidification. Rahman and his team found that the skeleton formed by chitin protects the coralline algae and enables the algae to “deflect climate change.”
Rahman has been interested in marine organisms since he was a child and completed his Master’s degree in Fisheries from Bangladesh. He moved to the University of Ryukyus in Japan for his Ph.D. degree, attracted by Japan’s coral reef islands. Following the completion of his Ph.D. in Marine and Environmental Sciences, Rahman was awarded the Presidential Award for Scientists, the highest honour given by the University of Ryukyus for outstanding novel research findings, and was accepted into a highly competitive postdoctoral fellowship program at the University of Ryukyus. He then received “an invitation from Munich University” to complete another postdoctoral fellowship in Germany and spent three years conducting research and teaching.
Rahman arrived in Canada and joined UTM in January 2013. He hopes to “establish marine biology as a subject [at UTM] in the near future” and wants to dispel the misconception that since the University of Toronto is not located near an ocean, we do not need to study the ocean. “We must study the ocean to understand environmental and climate change,” he says.
Rahman concludes by “invit[ing] students to join him in studying this interesting subject” of marine biology when such a program is available. For now, Rahman’s “main goal [is] to study the response of marine organisms to climate change” and he says that his team and himself “will continue to research other species.”