"Some of these algae that live within corals are amazingly productive, and in some cases give 95 percent of the sugars they produce to the coral to use for energy," Weis said. "In return the algae gain nitrogen, a limiting nutrient in the ocean, by feeding off the waste from the coral. It's a finely developed symbiotic relationship."
What scientists are learning, however, is that this relationship is also based on a delicate communication process from the algae to the coral, telling it that the algae belong there, and that everything is fine. Otherwise the corals would treat the algae as a parasite or invader and attempt to kill it.
"Even though the coral depends on the algae for much of its food, it may be largely unaware of its presence," Weis said. "We now believe that this is what's happening when the water warms or something else stresses the coral the communication from the algae to the coral breaks down, the all-is-well message doesn't get through, the algae essentially comes out of hiding and faces an immune response from the coral."
This internal communication process, Weis said, is not unlike some of the biological processes found in humans and other animals. One of the revelations in recent research, she said, is the enormous complexity of coral biology, and even its similarity to other life forms. A gene that controls skeletal development in humans, for instance, is the identical gene in corals that helps it develop its external skeleton conserved in the different species over hundreds of millions of years since they parted from a common ancestor on their separate evolutionary paths.
There's still much to learn about this process, researchers said, and tremendous variation in it. For one thing, there are 1,000 s
|Contact: Virginia Weis|
Oregon State University