Several news stories at the end of 2016 raised concerns about coral-bleaching and global warming negatively impacting coral reefs across the globe, particularly Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
National Science Foundation researchers are now investigating the reef to protect it against climate change in the future, particularly El Niño, which causes unusually warm waters. The key is understanding the microbiome of the reef—or what lies within the coral—that protects it.
“The coral microbiome is all the microscopic critters living in and on the coral animal,” said Monica Medina, an NSF-funded marine biologist at Pennsylvania State University. Medina is studying the coral alongside fellow Penn State researcher F. Joseph Pollock and Oregon State University microbiologists Ryan McMinds and Rebecca Vega Thurber.
For example, coral provides algae with a protective environment, and algae supplies coral with sugar generated through photosynthesis. In addition, some bacteria produce antibiotics that defend against pathogens.
“This only scratches the surface of the coral microbiome, which contains an astonishing diversity of microorganisms,” Medina said. “Without their microbiomes, corals could not persist.”
Understanding the microbiomes will help Medina and colleagues figure out how to help corals in the future. The research could help human health, too.
“Many treatments in development for diseases such as cancer are derived from the microbes associated with marine invertebrates,” Medina said.
Now that’s something we can get behind. Check out these vibrant reef images to see coral the way these scientists do.
Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.