Unfortunately, after half a billion years of success, corals today aren't doing so well. The effects of climate change and ocean pollution are taking their toll on the atolls. A fatal stress response known as coral bleaching, whereby corals expel the bacteria that give them their vibrant colors, is decimating corals around the world. Previous studies have linked apoptosis to this process, and indeed, the corals to which Quistad exposed TNF eventually bleached out.
A better understanding of how TNF mediates apoptosis in coral might allow conservationists to identify more resilient species, and then reintroduce these hardier corals to places where coral loss is hurting the local ecosystem, Quistad said.
Preserving and learning from these corals is important for human health, too. Corals are wonderfully complex organisms, Quistad said, and we're only beginning to learn their secrets.
"Many people look at a coral and think it's just a slimy rock," he said. "They think, 'How can it be so complex at a molecular level when it looks so simple?'"
Quistad said that by studying corals' various flavors of TNF proteins and TNF receptors, researchers might uncover medical properties useful for killing specific kinds of renegade cells, such as cancer cells.
"We have a lot to learn from corals about our own immune system," he said.
|Contact: Beth Chee|
San Diego State University