The problem of coral bleaching comes down to a collapse of the algae at the cellular level, Oliver explained. But the molecular biology of corals and their zooxanthellae under stress is shockingly understudied, he added.
To examine the corals and their symbionts at the molecular level, the researchers are collaborating with John Pringle, a professor of genetics at Stanford. Pringle and his lab have set up tanks where anemones, corals and their algae are exposed to a variety of treatments, including changes in temperature, acidity and light. That research is ongoing.
"What I hope is that we will learn some really deep and interesting things about the cellular and genetic mechanisms that allow this symbiosis to function, and about the mechanisms that come into play when the symbiosis is breaking down under stress," Pringle said. "The longer-range hope is that having that understanding will contribute to efforts in coral conservation."
The ultimate goal is to find protein biomarkers that indicate signs of heat stress and potential heat resistance, Oliver explained. Then coral reef managers could go to a reef, take small coral samples and test for the presence of the biomarkers to see how resilient the reef will be to higher temperatures.
"With this tool, managers could identify existing populations that may be more resistant to climate change and potentially prioritize their protection from everything else that kills coral reefs, like fishing and [agricultural] runoff," Oliver said.
"Although we are doing things to the planet we have never done before, it's hard to imagine that these corals, which have
|Contact: Mark Shwartz|