UNCW a Partner in $662,905 NSF Grant Studying Sea Squirts

Friday, March 04, 2022

Patrick Erwin and Susanna Lopez-Legentil, associate professors in UNCW’s Department of Biology and Marine Biology, are co-principal investigators on an award totaling $662,905 from the National Science Foundation Division of Environmental Biology. Together with colleagues from Coastal Carolina University and Soka University of America, they will study the development and application of genomic resources for ascidian taxonomy and holobiont evolution.

Both Erwin and Lopez-Legentil completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Business of Marine Biotechnology at UNCW in 2009. Erwin has been with the university for 11 years, and Lopez-Legentil for 12 years. Their research laboratory,, seeks to advance knowledge on the biology and ecology of marine animals, particularly ascidians or “sea squirts.”

Sea squirts are frequently found on floating docks and often mistaken for other immobile animals like sponges. They get their name from their ability to expel a stream of water through their siphons (squirt) when removed from the water.

Sea squirts are our closest invertebrate relatives and thus are often used as models to research and study vertebrate development and evolution. Some ascidians are actively consumed in Peru and South Korea, and others produce natural products that have resulted in anti-tumoral drugs. Many sea squirts effectively invade new coastal habitats where they can thrive and alter natural communities as well as cause economic loss to the area’s aquaculture industry. However, despite their ecological and evolutionary importance, identifying ascidian species remains a challenge.

The Development and Application of Genomic Resources for Ascidian Taxonomy and Holobiont Evolution is a three-year NSF award that will further advanced research on ascidians of Belize in Central America. This project will develop new genomic tools to accurately identify sea squirt species and address important questions in invasive species spread and chordate evolution. A species inventory will also be created, representing the first catalogue of ascidians from both harbor and reef habitats from Belize, which is a biodiversity hot spot for the group. The project will also document the prevalence of invasive ascidian species in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef and provide insight into the role of gut microbial symbionts in ascidian evolution and invasive potential.

The project provides valuable hands-on research for more than nine undergraduates per year at the three universities and supports four scholarships for underrepresented students in STEM disciplines. In addition, 24 students will be trained in ascidian taxonomy and a workshop on ascidian diversity will be presented to interested stakeholders in Belize.

-- Mary Ellen Frizzell


Susanna Lopez-Legentil

Susanna Lopez-Legentil, associate professor in UNCW’s Department of Biology and Marine Biology