The built-in resilience of corals could help them survive climate change

13 April 2021

Corals in the tropics are facing a variety of environmental threats, climate change among them. Warming and acidifying oceans pose an existential risk to fragile corals as frequent mass bleaching episodes have shown.

Encouragingly, some species of coral are hardier than others and so they may be able to withstand the effects of climate change.

Now scientists have shown that the biomineral that forms the skeleton of corals contains a highly organized organic mix of proteins, which resembles the structure in our bones. This high adaptable mineral allows corals to form their stony skeletons and may also be capable of enabling them to weather climate change through useful evolutionary adaptations, according to a study published by the Royal Society.

“Our findings suggest that corals will withstand climate change caused by human activities, based on the precision, robustness and resilience of their impressive process for forming rock-hard skeletons,” explains author Paul G. Falkowski, an oceanographer who is professor at the School of Arts and Sciences and School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick in New Jersey.

Falkowski and his colleagues studied the spatial interactions of proteins embedded within the skeleton of Stylophora pistillata, a stony coral common in tropical waters in the Pacific ocean. Stony corals like this species have evolved for some 400 million years to form sprawling reefs in shallow subtropical and tropical seas, the scientists explain.

They found that several proteins work together to create optimal conditions for biomineralization in the skeleton of corals thanks to well-organized spatial patterns that effectively aid the formation of new minerals between living tissue and the older skeletal structure in the animals.

If the scientists are right, stony corals could be more adaptable to environmental stressors than widely believed. That would certainly be good news as the continued survival of threatened reefs will be key to preserving the rich biodiversity of the oceans.

Coral reefs, dubbed the “rainforests of the seas,” also protect shorelines from erosion and storms in addition to serving as habitats and nurseries for a myriad of marine creatures, including fish. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide also depend on coral reefs for their livelihoods.

Yet corals are hardly having it easy these says as climate change, water pollution, destructive fishing practices and mass tourism have all been taking a toll on them.

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