Coral reefs could be dying out because of changes to the microbes that live in them just as much as from the direct rise in temperature caused by global warming, according to scientists speaking today (Wednesday 2 April 2008) at the Society for General Microbiologys 162nd meeting being held this week at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre.
Tropical ecosystems are currently balanced on a climate change knife edge. Corals in coral reefs, which are made up of animals called polyps that secrete hard external skeletons of calcium carbonate, are living perilously close to their upper temperature limits. This makes them very vulnerable to even small temperature rises of 1-2oC above the normal summer maximum.
Many of the deaths we see in the coral reefs, which occur following coral bleaching events, when huge areas of reef die off like in 1998 when 17% of the worlds reefs were killed, can be put down to changes in the microbes which live in and around the reefs, says Dr John Bythell, a biologist from Newcastle University. These microbes can be thought of as being similar to the bacteria that normally live in our guts and help us digest our food.
Changes in sea temperature caused by climate change and global warming affect corals, but they also affect the types of bacteria and other microflora that live with them. When the water warms up, some disease-causing bacteria are more successful and can attack the corals. The corals themselves suffer from heat, which reduces their defences. Also, some of the friendly bacteria that normally live in the corals guts become weakened, allowing other harmful bacteria to multiply and cause diseases or other problems.
For many communities in developing countries, which rely on coral reefs for their fisheries and tourism income, the loss of coral reefs has major impacts on their economies. They also lose valuable coastal defences and land to coastal erosion, affecting human welfare in the co
|Contact: Lucy Goodchild|
Society for General Microbiology