Whether you’ve seen coral reefs in person, in the movies or in a photograph, their beauty is undeniable. Beyond aesthetics, coral reefs are also important ecologically and economically; they support more species per unit area than any other marine environment (read more from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The biodiversity of these precious ecosystems plays a role in human health, as the discovery of beneficial compounds from coral reefs aids the development of new medicines with potential to treat diseases. Coral reefs also contribute to local economies – from tourism to commercial fishing – and play a role in buffering shorelines from waves, preventing erosion and protecting wetlands, ports and coastal communities.
Despite their many strengths, coral reefs are fragile. These habitats are experiencing significant stress and decline as a result of human activity, rising water temperatures, increasing seawater acidity and pollution. Scientists have been studying how coral reefs respond to these stresses in an effort to ensure a viable future.
A recent study published in Nature provides insights into how coral reefs are evolving and adapting, and emphasizes the need for improved stewardship of natural ecosystems worldwide. Co-author of this study Steve Palumbi, director of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station and a Moore Foundation grantee, says: “Coral species themselves are changing, evolving, adapting at a huge scale. Their ability to change rapidly is an asset for us – the corals that live on warmer reefs now may be better prepared for future conditions. And every asset we have is important to use.”
However, history cannot be undone and not every species can be saved. According to the study authors, navigating coral reef transitions and transformations will require shifts in the science, management and governance of reefs worldwide. Read more from the Arc Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.
The foundation, through its Science Program, supported Palumbi and collaborators John Pringle and Arthur Grossman, also at Stanford, to lead efforts in better understanding 1) the mechanisms of coral resilience when exposed to stress and 2) the earliest and most reliable indicators of coral stress in response to changing environmental conditions. Research in this area has been hindered by a lack of basic cellular and molecular biological knowledge of coral symbionts – the critically important single-celled algae that live within coral tissues – and the effects of changing environmental conditions on the mutually beneficial interactions between the two.
To date, Palumbi and his team have created libraries of genomic resources for scientists and completed laboratory studies of the relationships between coral reefs, algal symbionts – which provide much of a coral’s energy – and sea anemones, an evolutionary cousin of corals. With continued funding from the foundation, Palumbi is diving deeper into this symbiotic relationship with the intention of enhancing researchers’ abilities to understand and predict stress by identifying molecular signals that result from harmful environmental conditions. This project is part of the foundation’s strategic portfolio that supports research on microbial symbiosis.