Posted by: ecodestination | March 9, 2009

Possible good news for corals!

Andrew Baker holds coral he wants to coax into teaming up with more heat-resistant algae

Andrew Baker holds coral he wants to coax into teaming up with more heat-resistant algae

Remember all those awful news about coral reefs being on their way out? Here’s another thought: heat-tolerant algae might save them by helping coral adapt to climate change.

As we know, coral reefs are very fragile creatures. Tourism, sunscreen, and myriad other factors contribute to the reefs’ bleaching and death all over the globe. Global warming is largely thought to be, basically, a death sentence for coral everywhere.

But wait! Andrew Baker, a scientist at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, disagrees. He says that (1) corals can inherently adapt to rising temperatures and (2) we can help! (Let me explain the exclamation mark – I am excited about this!)

This year Baker set up a project to research the relationship between reef-building coral polyps (a relative of jellyfish) and their symbiotic algae, zooxanthellae. The algae seek shelter in the reefs, and in return, the algae feed the corals sugar, which corals turn into energy. The problem with higher temperatures is that they can destroy this give-and-take relationship between the algae and the corals: they make algae leave the corals, depriving the reefs of the sugar they need to remain healthy. Without this source of energy, the corals become very weak, and often die.

What Baker wants to do to prevent these coral deaths is inoculate corals, or make them immune, with the help of a different kind of algae that can resist heat better. Once these algae are administered, so to speak, to the corals, the reefs adapt and can live in higher-temperature waters.

Apparently, some corals have always attracted algae more tolerant to heat than the typical zooxanthellae and therefore became more heat-resistant themselves and resisted bleaching, e.g. in the Persian Gulf. Sometimes corals switch from zooxanthellae to heat-resistant algae during hotter seasons. That’s pretty neat.

The downside – humans have been tinkering with nature for, hmm, ever. And most usually the results are catastrophic. Some people think Baker’s idea, thus, shouldn’t be taken seriously out of fear that it may harm corals instead of help them.

But Baker says, screw it, it’s worth a try. I think I agree. After all, the plan is to introduce corals to a more heat-resistant type of algae, not to inoculate them with pharmaceutical drugs (a plan that, unfortunately, wouldn’t surprise me).

Read the whole, detailed article at the Christian Science Monitor.


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