Jesse Robillard '11 Presents Research at MCLA and UMass-Amherst


Jesse RobillardAn MCLA student is conducting research that is important to the survival of coral reefs throughout the world.

Through his work with sea anemones, Jesse Robillard '11, of Lanesboro, Mass. - along with his faculty sponsor, Dr. Ann Billetz, chair of MCLA's biology department - soon will identify the type of bacteria that grows inside the Aiptasia Pallida. Although scientists know that bacteria live in this particular species of sea anemone, the specific bacteria found in this creature have yet to be identified.

"This is a new marine biology discovery to be made," Robillard said. "These sea anemones belong to a class or family called Cnidarians, which includes sponges and coral reefs. What's so fascinating is that these sea anemones and the coral reefs are so much alike that they both contain bacterial aggregates, or the bacteria inside and on top of them."

According to Robillard, scientists have found that the bacteria in reefs actually have a symbiotic relationship with the coral - they are essential to its survival.

"They can prevent diseases from coming in and help give them nutrients. By discovering bacteria within these anemones, we can relate that information to coral reefs of the world," Robillard explained. "So, essentially, we're discovering new roles that these bacteria in Cnidarian species have, which could benefit coral reef survival. It's a huge concern with climate control."

A day after participating in MCLA's Annual Undergraduate Research Conference,
Robillard presented his research at the 16th Annual Massachusetts Statewide Undergraduate Conference, held on April 23 at UMass-Amherst.

On average, eight students from MCLA attend the UMass Commonwealth URC each year.  Undergraduate research is one of MCLA's strengths: students can become involved as early as their sophomore year. 

After growing the tropical sea anemone in a marine tank on campus, Robillard worked to identify a specific type of bacteria within them and obtained its DNA.

"We wanted a region of the DNA that's been identified in multiple species of bacteria," Robillard said. "Once an outside company takes the sequence and maps each nucleotide out, we identify the bacteria that we found and study what types of properties they possess - what kind of symbiotic relationship can be formed between the two organisms.

"This lets us explore almost endless opportunities, like what these bacteria are known for and what they do in other species of organisms - especially, what role do they play in Cnidarian species if they've already been discovered? This can give us an insight into what they're doing and how they're helping coral reefs," he said.

According to Billetz, "Jesse's research is an important part of his education. This shows that not only can he learn information but that he can also apply what he has learned. When you carry out a research project you have to be able to develop a hypothesis, design and carry out experiments, collect and analyze data and sometimes things don't work as expected and you have to be able to problem solve." 

Next fall, Robillard, who is majoring in biology with a pre-medical concentration, will look into the antibiotic components of the bacteria.