New Research Highlights That Immunity May Be Key To Saving Coral Reefs

Photo by Erin Simmons on Unsplash

Coral reefs all around the world are experience the same devastating effect that bleaching brings upon coral reefs when water temperatures warm up. This a a huge problem as we have seen the loss of reef systems at a rate never before documented. To say coral reefs are vital to the ocean is a huge understatement as they support a quarter of all marine life, feed hundreds of millions of people and contribute billions to the global economy.

Unfortunately, they are dying in masses due to bleaching events brought on by climate change but scientists are seeking ways to help protect these reefs.

In a new paper published in Nature, it details how scientists are hopeful that a shift in research focus towards coral immunity will support reef conservation and restoration efforts.

Published by Dr. Caroline Palmer of the University of Plymouth, she has spent more than a decade examining coral health from an immunological perspective and has identified coral immune mechanisms and sought to understand what enables some corals to survive while others die.

The research as led Dr. Palmer to discover that corals with higher immune defenses are less likely to become diseased or to become bleach.

In her latest work, she expands on this observation, drawing on a theory from insects that explains how corals might coexist with specific microorganisms, as a ‘holobiont’, while resisting infection or other disturbances.

The paper also presents a model of coral susceptibility, whereby investing in immunity enables coral, with its microorganisms, to tolerate more damage before initiating an immune response. This model describes how coral tolerance may vary among corals indicating their susceptibility to disturbances, such as bleaching events.

“There is no question that climate change is devastating coral reef systems. But if we are to conserve or restore them, we need to understand coral health — what drives tolerance and how can we promote it,” Dr Palmer says. “If you have a strong immune system, and the energy to support it, you are more likely to be healthy and to survive adverse conditions.”

Dr Palmer also proposes an immunological model by which corals may increase their tolerance to adverse conditions — suggesting a way coral may adapt to new, more extreme, conditions.

“Coral biologists are racing to conserve coral reefs before it’s too late. There is currently a lot of interest in creating more tolerant corals through genetic engineering and of restoring reefs by targeting more resilient corals. I fully support these approaches, but believe understanding what drives coral health will be key to their success.”

As we race to finding the best way to protect and conserve such an important member of the planets ecosystem, the research into coral immunity will be as important as any. We are excited to see the continued work in this field in hopes to finding a key to saving as much coral as possible.

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