Coral reefs are quintessential in more ways than containing some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on our planet.
They buffer shorelines from the effects of hurricanes and rampant waves. Coral reefs sustain subsistence and commercial fisheries, as well as jobs and businesses in the tourism and recreation industries. Approximately half of all federally managed fisheries are dependent on coral reefs and the various habitats they support.
It’s been shown that local economies survive on the billions of dollars that they receive through tourist attractions like diving tours, fishing trips, restaurants, and hotels that are based near coral reefs.
The various beneficial uses of coral reefs are still being discovered by biologists. The biodiversity of reef ecosystems may help foster advances in medical fields. New drugs which could be possible cures to ailments like cancer, arthritis, and bacterial infection are being developed from animals and plants that live in reefs.
Yet, despite their value, coral reefs are severely threatened by pollution, disease, and habitat destruction. Unhealthy reefs are unable to provide for the animals that rely on them for habitats, and the human communities that depend on them for their livelihoods.
Scientists warn that in order to save these beautiful natural phenomena from extinction, we must cut back on total heat emission. Oceans have taken the worst of climate change, soaking in excess heat caused by human impact, leading to steadily rising water temperatures.
Corals live in a symbiotic relationship with algae, which provide nutrients to the coral as well as the vibrant colors that they are so well known for. Under heat stress, however, the coral discharges the algae, becoming a ghostly white skeleton in a process known as “coral bleaching”.
When this happens, the reef will shrivel up, losing most of its natural shelter, leaving it unable to provide for the organisms that live in it.
A couple of preventative measures against bleaching that are in use today are protective films that help soften sunlight, and underwater robots that methodically plant coral in their larvae stages around potentially vulnerable reefs in order to aid natural reconstruction. However, with changing conditions and intensifying global warming, a more aggressive approach may be necessary.
Marine biologists at the University of Melbourne and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) have begun looking into some alternative solutions. They started by isolating algae from the coral larvae and then culturing them in a lab over a period of several years using directed evolution.
Directed evolution is a type of artificial evolution wherein an organism is exposed to controlled conditions in an attempt to speed up adaptation and enhance certain characteristics.
The cultured algae was then reintroduced to the coral larvae, allowing the corals to endure greater amounts of heat stress than they were originally able to. In fact, the algae were so improved that studies have shown that they were better overall at performing photosynthesis and assisting the coral’s heat response.
Biologists are now discussing the potential for any side effects caused by the cultured algae to coral in its adult stages, and how any tweaks to the directed evolution process could impact its success rate.
In short, a world without coral reefs cannot happen. Millions, if not billions, of humans and animals alike will be affected by the loss of reefs. We must begin using every tool that we have at our disposal in order to stop this problem before it gets even worse.
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