Christian R. Voolstra

  Associate Professor, Marine Science ​

  Office Location: Ibn Al Haytham (Building 2) · Level 2 · Room 2226
  Faculty lab website:

Research Keywords
Marine Genomics, Marine Microbiology, Environmental Genomics, Environmental Microbiology, Evolutionary Genomics​

Research Interests

My research area is ecological and environmental genomics. My research aims to develop an integrated understanding of the ecology and evolution of the coral metaorganism (i.e. cnidarian host, dinoflagellate intracellular symbiont, associated microbiota) on a molecular level to predict adaptive capabilities and biotic response to environmental change. Coral reefs are biodiversity reservoirs and a significant source of nutrition and pharmaceuticals, but coral reefs face an unprecedented decline in the last decades due to anthropogenic impact.

Research Area 1: SymbiOmics - Decoding Structure and Function of the coral metaorganism

We are currently completing genome sequencing, assembly, and annotation of the coral hologenome (i.e. the coral animal, the dinoflagellate symbiont, and the associated bacteria) of Stylophora pistillata. The availability of the first holobiont genome promises an unprecedented view on the structure, function, and evolution of eukaryote-eukaryote and eukaryote-prokaryote interorganismal relationships and represents a key step in decoding interactions of marine metaorganisms. 

Research Area 2: Coral Reef Health Monitoring

The identification and characterization of organisms, genes, and molecules that allow an insight into the health status of corals (respectively reef ecosystems) as well as the development of techniques and devices to detect these is of importance to conserve ecosystem function. Given that environmental change is global, other ecosystems will follow to display signs of affection by anthropogenic activities. Our ability to sense and monitor these effects strongly aids the prioritization of targeted efforts and minimization of ecosystem impact. To this end, we have conducted several studies characterizing the coral microbiome in health and disease, and we are currently targeting metatranscriptomics to yield insights into the functional landscape and significance of microbes to organismal function.

Research Area 3: Bioactive Screening of Marine Organisms

Marine organisms are considered a rich source of new bioactive molecules. While numerous promising candidates have been isolated from marine organisms, large areas of the world's oceans remain unexplored. In particular, the Red Sea is a largely untapped, uncharted source of bioactives. We are conducting cytological profiling of extracts from marine organisms of the Red Sea by imaging-based High Content Screening (HCS). Our approach will facilitate rapid identification of promising sources for bioactive molecules.

Research Area 4: Red Sea Robotics

Exploring and monitoring oceanic resources has remained expensive and challenging because it requires human divers who can only explore underwater environments during short periods of time and within limited depths. While underwater vehicles have proven to be very useful for safely exploring oceans at greater depths, they lack human dexterity. To help scientists safely explore the Red Sea's fragile and previously inaccessible underwater environment, we are designing and building a semi-autonomous underwater robotic explorer. This project is in collaboration with the Electrical Engineering Department of KAUST and the Artificial Intelligence Department of Stanford University.

Main Techniques
Next-Generation Sequencing; Genome assembly, annotation, analysis; Transcriptome assembly, annotation, analysis; small RNA sequencing, annotation, analysis; RNASeq; Expression profiling; 16S rRNA gene profiling; metatranscriptomics; metagenomics; HCS; LC; MS

Members of the Lab

Lauren Yum: PhD candidate looking at the metatranscriptome of deep sea coral in the Red Sea and their associated microbial community. Lauren obtained her bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins University (USA) in biomedical engineering and materials science.

Chatchanit Arif: PhD candidate studying the association of bacteria and Symbiodinium with corals in different geographical regions using high-throughput molecular ecology.

Aubrie O'Rourke: PhD Candidate exploring the potential of Red Sea sponges and their associated bacteria as producers of antiviral bioactives. Aubrie received her MSc from University of California, Merced.

Anna Roik: PhD student conducting environmental monitoring studies in a tropical coral reef system with a focus on bioerosion and calcification processes, which define the existence and shape of the coral reef framework. Anna graduated in Bioscience and Ecology at Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany.

Ghaida Hadaidi: PhD student using metagenomics to explore the role of bacteria in coral bleaching in different geographical regions. Ghaida received her MSc from KAUST University, Saudi Arabia.

Till Rothig: PhD student investigating the importance of the microbiome to coral function under stress. Till received his MSc from the University of Bremen, Germany.

Sebastian Baumgarten: PhD student involved in sequencing and analyzing the genome of Aiptasia sp. and exploring the role of microRNAs in cnidarian-dinoflagellate endosymbiosis.

Dr. Camille Daniels: PostDoc using metatranscriptomics to understand coral holobiont function in coral disease and also explore the role of gene transfer in coral larval settlement. Dr. Daniels received her PhD from the University of South Florida (USA).

Dr. Stephan Kremb: PostDoc working on the discovery and characterization of novel marine natural products from the Red Sea. He is currently setting up an imaging-based High-Content-Screening platform for cytological phenotypic profiling of chemically pre-fractionated extracts of marine organisms. Dr Kremb obtained his PhD from the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM).

Dr. Matthew Neave: PostDoc working on the functional role of Endozoicomonas bacteria in coral metaorganism function as well as the global structure of the microbiome of the coral Stylophora pistillata.

Selected Publications

Bacterial profiling of White Plague Disease in a comparative coral species framework.
Roder C, Arif C, Bayer T, Aranda M, Daniels C, Shibl A, Chavanich S, Voolstra CR
Nature ISME 2014 8, 31-39; doi:10.1038/ismej.2013.127​

The Global Invertebrate Genomics Alliance (GIGA): Developing Community Resources to Study Diverse Invertebrate Genomes.
GIGA Community of Scientists
Journal of Heredity 2014, 105 (1): 1-18. doi:10.1093/jhered/est084 Editor's Choice

Integrating microRNA and mRNA expression profiling in Symbiodinium microdriaticum, a dinoflagellate symbiont of reef building corals.
Baumgarten  S, Bayer  T, Aranda  M, Liew JY, Carr  A, Micklem  G, Voolstra CR                                                                                              BMC Genomics 2013, 14:704. Highly Accessed

First biological measurements of deep-sea corals from the Red Sea.
Roder C, Berumen ML, Bouwmeester J, Papathanassiou E, Al-Suwailem A, Voolstra CR
Nature Scientific Reports 2013, 3

The microbiome of the Red Sea coral Stylophora pistillata is dominated by tissue-associated Endozoicomonas bacteria.
Bayer T, Neave MJ, Alsheikh-Hussain A, Aranda M, Yum LK, Mincer T, Hughen K, Apprill A, Voolstra CR.
Applied Environmental Microbiology 2013 Vol. 79, No. 15, 4759-62