Understanding genes could help save coral reefs

By Robyn Nissim and Alexandra Pecharich

Scientists estimate that one-third of the planet’s existing coral reefs could be lost in the next 30 years, largely due to rising ocean temperatures. Coral reefs contribute about $375 billion annually to the global economy by virtue of their biodiversity, which directly supports the commercial fishing, tourism and pharmaceutical industries. Reefs also play a role in protecting against coastal erosion and even saving lives and property by dampening the strength of waves that hit shore during hurricanes.

Now a group from FIU has discovered that some species of coral rely on specific genes that help them adjust during increasingly frequent cycles of warming waters. Their discovery is considered a scientific breakthrough.

A jump of as little as two degrees can cause serious damage by forcing out beneficial microscopic algae that live within coral tissue. The loss of algae turns the reef white in a process known as “bleaching.” White coral is fragile and more likely to die off.

But not every coral reef is threatened by temperature rise. This fact led biology professor Mauricio Rodriguez-Lanetty and his Ph.D. student Anthony Bellantuono to the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. The reef’s tremendous variety of coral—much greater than in South Florida—allowed the researchers to test many different species under simulated environmental conditions.

All species of coral share common genes, but only in some is a specific set of genes “activated” to produce a type of protective protein that helps the coral to acclimatize.

“Now that we have identified these genes, we want to see how the activation of these genes is controlled and what is happening in the genes of other coral species,” Rodriguez-Lanetty added, “especially in those species that don’t do well.” This has sparked his interest in tackling the logical next questions.

“Now that we know which genes really allow or facilitate acclimatization under certain stressing environments, how we can manipulate them in other corals?” Rodriguez-Lanetty asks. “How can we make those genes active so other corals can adjust,acclimatize favorably as well?”

Whatever form of potential “gene therapy” he might propose down the road, as part of a separate study, Rodriguez-Lanetty acknowledges that any manipulation of coral would have its detractors.

“That’s very controversial,” Rodriguez-Lanetty says. Conservation biologists prefer preservation techniques over artificial methods to promote species, mainly for fear of unintended consequences.

“But we are in challenging times,” Rodriguez-Lanetty says. “We have increasing environmental stress such as global climate change. So if there is some potential mechanism that some species have figured out to survive, why not facilitate that in other coral species?”

The FIU research has already received wide attention, including publication in a prestigious academic journal and a subsequent collection of articles related to ecological impacts of climate change.   


Homepage photo CC-BY-2.0 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – Pacific Region

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