TAMU-CC Life Sciences Professor Earns Prestigious NSF Grant to Study Oysters

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Understanding the environmental factors at work during shell formation could help create a hardier oyster, one that can continue to thrive in increasingly adverse coastal conditions. This information would undoubtedly be a boon to the Lone Star State’s emerging aquaculture industry and would also contribute to the restoration of the oyster population on the Gulf Coast.

Dr. Wei Xu, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi Assistant Professor of Life Sciences, received a CAREER grant for $809,202 for his research proposal involving bivalve shell formation from the National Science Foundation. The CAREER grant, the foundation’s most prestigious award, offers support for early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. The award timeline is from Aug. 1, 2021, to July 31, 2026.

“The Island University has been a national leader in advancing knowledge in marine biology and coastal sciences,” said Dr. Ahmed Mahdy, TAMU-CC Vice President of Research and Innovation. “We are proud of Dr. Xu’s accomplishment and are looking forward to see the impact of this project.” 

While Xu’s proposal was originally focused on basic research, climate change reports and a steadily increasing annual temperature brought the issue of ocean acidification to Xu’s attention; specifically, how ocean acidification affects shell development in eastern oyster, also known as the American oyster or the Gulf Coast oyster.

“We’re concerned,” Xu said. “What’s going to happen in 10 years? 100 years? That’s going to be an issue, but no one is looking into how that happens.”

Xu’s research will focus on understanding how carbon dioxide and water salinity affect eastern oyster shell formation from a genetic level, which could then lead to developing a method to help oysters become more resistant to low pH and climate change. The long-range goal for Xu’s research is that it will also help develop oyster aquaculture in the Gulf of Mexico and restore shellfish habitats on the coast.

According to Texas A&M AgriLife, oyster aquaculture is a $200 million-plus industry in the U.S; however, Texas is the last coastal state to allow commercial oyster aquaculture, following the passage of two bills by the Texas Legislature in September 2019. In the months that followed, Texas Parks and Wildlife has developed oyster aquaculture rules and regulations for the state.


TAMU-CC marine biology student Molly Brzezinksi ’22 said she is excited to work on Xu’s project, which she says is the “perfect bridge between my previous skills and my future direction as a scientist.”

“As a biochemist, I enjoy discovering the mechanisms that allow an organism to survive and thrive,” Brzezinski said. “As an environmentalist, I’m thrilled by the chance to alter a potentially dire outcome for an important species. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to bring my two passions together!”

Marine biology doctoral student Nin Gan ’23 said his ongoing project studies the impacts of pollutants on oyster physiology by looking at the effects on oysters at different development stages. Gan said he will apply these same techniques in Xu’s research project.

“This project will be extremely impactful on the Gulf Coast,” Gan said. “Not only is the Gulf of Mexico a huge source of petroleum, and thus, petroleum pollution, but it’s also the site of aquaculture for many organisms, including white shrimp, red drum, and eastern oyster. This project marries those two very important Gulf attributes and informs the better management of such a critical resource.”

Texas Sea Grant, a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University, is working with Xu and his team to connect this research to real-world application through collaboration with commercial hatcheries and educating oyster farmers. Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas, and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products, and services that benefit the economy, the environment, and the citizens of Texas. It is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is one of 34 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country.

Xu said the results of the study will be presented to policymakers, oyster producers, and restoration organizations by student researchers during workshops organized by Texas Sea Grant.

“The findings of this project will also be presented to the public through educational events organized by TAMU-CC to help people recognize the importance of environmental changes to marine animal development,” he said.

Xu and his team are also collaborating with Del Mar College to provide research experience opportunities for community college students with the expectation that these students will be able to dive right into lab work once they transfer to the Island University to complete their bachelor’s degree.

Xu also hopes the study will encourage more Hispanic and Latino students in STEM majors to pursue advanced science degrees.

“By offering Hispanic and Latino students more authentic graduate research opportunities in my lab, we can really encourage these students to be involved in biological sciences research,” Xu said.