A team of scientists has successfully produced in a laboratory setting a coralthat is more resistant to increased seawater temperatures.

The team included researchers from CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency,the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and the University ofMelbourne.

Corals with increased heat tolerance have the potential to reduce the impactof reef bleaching from marine heat waves, which are becoming more common underclimate change.

“Coral reefs are in decline worldwide,” CSIRO Synthetic Biology Future SciencePlatform (SynBio FSP) science lead Dr Patrick Buerger said.

“Climate change has reduced coral cover, and surviving corals are underincreasing pressure as water temperatures rise and the frequency and severityof coral bleaching events increase.”

The team made the coral more tolerant to temperature-induced bleaching bybolstering the heat tolerance of its microalgal symbionts – tiny cells ofalgae that live inside the coral tissue.

“Our novel approach strengthens the heat resistance of coral by manipulatingits microalgae, which is a key factor in the coral’s heat tolerance,” DrBuerger said.

The team isolated the microalgae from coral and cultured them in thespecialist symbiont lab at AIMS. Using a technique called “directedevolution”, they then exposed the cultured microalgae to increasingly warmertemperatures over a period of four years.

This assisted them to adapt and survive hotter conditions.

“Once the microalgae were reintroduced into coral larvae, the newlyestablished coral-algal symbiosis was more heat tolerant compared to theoriginal one,” Dr Buerger said.

The microalgae were exposed to temperatures that are comparable to the oceantemperatures during current summer marine heat waves causing coral bleachingon the Great Barrier Reef.
The researchers then unveiled some of the mechanisms responsible for theenhanced coral bleaching tolerance.

“We found that the heat tolerant microalgae are better at photosynthesis andimprove the heat response of the coral animal,” Professor Madeleine van Oppen,of AIMS and the University of Melbourne, said.

“These exciting findings show that the microalgae and the coral are in directcommunication with each other. “

The next step is to further test the algal strains in adult colonies across arange of coral species.

“This breakthrough provides a promising and novel tool to increase the heattolerance of corals and is a great win for Australian science,” SynBio FSPDirector Associate Professor Claudia Vickers said.

This research was conducted by CSIRO in partnership with AIMS and theUniversity of Melbourne. It was funded by CSIRO, Paul G. Allen FamilyFoundation (U.S.A.), AIMS and the University of Melbourne.

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