A group of researchers at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia is exploring a novel technology to improve the health of corals. Around the globe, corals are being stressed by pathogens, toxins, and warming waters leading to widespread bleaching events.
The new idea is to introduce beneficial bacteria to the corals, thereby boosting the strength and resilience of their symbiotic partners. The concept is akin to the use of probiotics in plant science. Corals rely on bacterial and algal symbionts to provide nutrients, energy (through photosynthesis), toxin regulation, and protection against pathogens.
The researchers selected bacteria that are naturally symbiotic to specific coral species on reefs in the Red Sea, ensuring that no alien bacteria are accidentally introduced. A probiotic cocktail comprising six bacteria strains was used in a laboratory setting. Results in the lab have been promising so far, as they have observed dynamic and metabolic alterations to the corals that boosted their chances of survival under heat stress.
Success in the lab will need to be translated to success in the open oceans, which is challenging. Scaling up and seeding whole reefs might involve robots and artificial intelligence in order to deliver probiotics either into sediments or directly onto corals.
The use of beneficial microorganisms is not the solution to the global destruction of coral reefs. Only worldwide CO2 mitigation can ultimately accomplish that. But the probiotic approach might buy corals some time as they deal with shifting environmental pressures and try to adapt to a changing world.
Photo, posted March 18, 2018, courtesy of Steven dos Remedios via Flickr.