Over two hundred million humans depend for their subsistence on the fact that coral has an addiction to junk food - and orders its partners, the symbiotic algae, to make it.
This curious arrangement is one of Natures most delicate and complex partnerships a collaboration now facing grave threats from climate change.
The symbiosis between coral a primitive animal and zooxanthellae, tiny one-celled plants, is not only powerful enough to build the largest living organism on the planet, the Great Barrier Reef but also underpins the economies and living standards of many tropical nations and societies who harvest their food from the reefs or have developing tourism industries.
The issue of whether the partnership is robust enough to withstand the challenges of climate change is driving a worldwide scientific effort to decipher how corals and their symbiotic algae communicate with one another, says Professor David Yellowlees of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS) and James Cook University.
Its an incredibly intricate relationship in which the corals feed the algae and try to control their diet, and the algae in turn use sunlight to produce junk food carbohydrates and fats for the corals to consume.
Where it all breaks down is when heated water lingers over the reef and the corals expel the algae and then begin to slowly starve to death. This is the bleaching phenomenon Australians are by now so familiar with, and which is such a feature of global warming.
The challenge for scientists is to understand the chemical conversation that goes on between the corals and zooxanthellae, the genes which control it and to explore whether corals which lose their primary partners can survive using other algae or must inevitably die.
Prof Yellowlees and Dr Bill Leggat will shortly release a new review of the current state of knowledge about the metabolism of the coral symbiosis in the jour
|Contact: David Yellowlees|
ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies