Scientists from the University of Texas have identified a gene in coral that is affected when coral becomes heat stressed. Stressed coral release the algae they depend on for energy in a process more commonly known as bleaching. Bleaching results from unusual water temperatures, too warm or too cool, and causes coral to turn white in color. However, coral do not always die from bleaching and the process can be reversed if early enough in the process.
|Photo from What is Coral Bleaching? NOAA|
"We understood that there is a target gene essentially used as a biomarker for diseased and distressed corals, and that gene is induced by the response pathway that my lab studies," said Pellegrino, assistant professor of biology. Although Pellegrino never studied coral, he specializes in mitochondria and cell biology.
The team at the University of Texas plan to do testing in a model organism in order to determine if the gene they discovered can protect coral from heat stress and infection. Coral reefs support 25% of all marine species on the plant. They provide habitats and shelter for marine life, aid in nutrient recycling, and protect coastlines from wave action and tropical storms. Laura Mydlarz from the Department of Biology says, “Understanding the existence of this gene means that there is now the potential to identify if corals are experiencing stress before they appear dead or bleached.” Researchers hope to be able to predict coral survival and identify if they are experiencing stress before the bleaching process occurs.
Honestly, I am on the fence about this gene discovery. It’s great because if scientists can prevent coral bleaching and extend the life of coral, I’m all for it. However, I feel like corals bleach because they cannot survive or function properly in the environment and expelling the algae living in their tissues is how they react to the stress. I think further studies need to be done to determine (a) if corals release the algae as a form of survival or response to not being able to thrive in said conditions, (b) if altering the gene will allow coral to continue living as it does in ideal conditions, and (c) how stressful situations affect the functions of coral.