Coral reefs are in decline all over the world. Corals are under increasing pressure as water temperatures rise and the frequency and severity of coral bleaching events increase. Nowhere is this more evident than in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef system, where severe bleaching events have happened in three of the past five years. Long-term prospects for the survival of the world’s largest reef system are now considered to be poor.
A team of scientists at Australia’s national science agency – the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization – along with the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the University of Melbourne have successfully produced in a laboratory setting a coral that is more resistant to increased seawater temperatures.
The team made the coral more tolerant to temperature-induced bleaching by bolstering the heat tolerance of the microalgae symbionts that live inside the coral tissue. They isolated the microalgae from coral and cultured it in the laboratory using a technique called “directed evolution”. Over the course of four years, they exposed the microalgae to increasingly warmer temperatures. When the heat-adapted strain of algae was reintroduced into coral larvae, the newly established coral-algal symbiosis was more heat tolerant than the original one. The heat-tolerant microalgae are better at photosynthesis and improve the heat response of the coral animal.
The next step is to further test the algal strains in adult colonies across a range of coral species. This groundbreaking research provides a promising and novel tool to increase the heat tolerance of corals and might potentially lead to a way to save the Great Barrier Reef as the world continues to warm.
Photo, posted September 22, 2010, courtesy of NOAA via Flickr.