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A Closer Look at Coral Epidemiology

Fairfax, VA

While the world grappled with a global pandemic just a few years prior, epidemics silently have and will continue to sweep through coral reefs, important hubs of biodiversity in our oceans. Not only are corals home to a variety of species, they often serve as barriers against coastal erosion, are the potential source of materials for upcoming biomedical applications, and are huge economic drivers through tourism and preventing coastal infrastructure damage. From these examples, it’s clear that the role of coral reefs is not a small one and, thus, their degradation deserves to be the target of more environmental science research. A large chunk of research, especially those well-known to the public, involves the impact of climate change on coral reefs, with rising ocean temperatures creating an unsuitably acidic environment for coral growth. Despite the need to delve into such research as climate change continues to be a growing concern, coral diseases, considering their negative impact, are similarly deserving of such attention from the scientific community. 


coral reef fish habitat ocean ecosystem science
A thriving coral reef and ecosystem (Source: https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/coral-reef. Public Domain.)

While many diseases plague corals, with greater variety within some categories than others, the devastation these ailments are capable of can be demonstrated through a recent example. Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCLTD) is a condition that has recently affected Atlantic-Caribbean coral reefs, such as half of Florida's Coral Reef and much of the reefs in Caribbean territories. Colonies of corals, despite the species, tend to have the same presentation of the disease, developing lesions before quickly perishing--an outcome that has greatly reduced coral coverage and ecosystem habitat in affected areas. This condition remains concerning due to the quick mortality and a high number of colonies found to be susceptible to it so far; 66-100 out of 100 surveyed Florida colonies were found to be affected according to the AGRRA. Because of the transmission speed of SCLTD and research results, studies have proposed that it may be passed on by a bacterial pathogen. 

coral disease epidemiology habitat SCTLD
Before and after of SCTLD-affected Pseudodiploria strigosa (Source: Ilsa B. Kuffner, 2015-16. Accessed via https://www.usgs.gov/media/images/stony-coral-tissue-loss-disease-biscayne-national-park. Public Domain.)

To improve such studies related to corals and the field itself, the scientific community has pursued the establishment of more standardized terminology and protocols for research. Through such efforts, scientists can better build on each other's work and strive for the most accurate results to expand knowledge about coral diseases and the system of causes and effects surrounding them. For example, the common usage of Acropora, a widely present and diverse genus of hard coral, as a research model allows for better comparison within papers and more generalizable findings for developing solutions. In the usage of Acropora or other varieties of coral, molecular diagnostic techniques such as DNA sequencing and protein concentration assays are common in looking into the microbial communities of the coral, which may offer insights into the effects of pathogens or environmental stressors. Healthy coral colonies and unhealthy coral colonies tend to show significant differences in the microbes present, but it mustn't be overlooked that the location of the coral reefs can also play a role in community structure. Indeed, microbial communities offer some of the greatest insights into coral health and wellbeing.


Hope remains for the recovery of coral reefs currently affected by diseases and for future coral reefs as well. Current research methods continue to undergo improvement and more unified efforts on a local and global scale are providing better treatment than ever for these corals. A current remedy for diseases caused by bacterial pathogens has been applying an amoxicillin paste on the affected region. As an antibiotic, the properties of the paste, though unable to prevent future lesions or damage, have aided in coral recovery. Major strides have been made in recent years in managing coral epidemiology and identifying questions that need to be addressed in the future for better care. With continued research and efforts by both dedicated scientists and citizen-scientists, the tide can be turned for a better future for coral reefs.


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