June 8, 2022
Q&A 072

🪸 Coral

For quite some time, it is known that coral reefs are endangered by global warming. This is because the algae that reside within corals and provide them with food experience malfunction in their photosynthetic mechanisms at higher temperatures. Rather than producing molecular oxygen as waste of the photosynthesis, they start generating highly toxic oxygen-rich compounds, such as peroxides. You probably know the side-effects of peroxide: bleaching. For some, useful for their teeth, clothes or hair but for corals a deadly cocktail.

An article in the Economist shared some good news to combat the destruction that is happening at ever-increasing speed. There are several areas of research that are showing promising results. First of all, there are coral species that are already heat resistant. These can be found for example in the Red Sea. Research focuses on either transferring these species to endangered reefs or isolating the specific genes responsible for the heat-resistance.

Another focus area is the notion that some reefs seem to be more heat-resistant than others despite the fact that they are structurally and genetically similar. It seems that the environment they are in has a big influence. Organisms that are symbiotic to corals, for example particular types of their companion algae, seem to create more robust mechanisms of photosynthesis.

All these insights and potential solutions are promising, but large scale applicability is a challenge. Just imagine how you're going to populate the Great Barrier Reef, an area as big as Italy, with heat-resistant types coming from the Red Sea. As one of the researchers, Dr Cohen, notes:

“We have to let nature do its thing, because only nature can do it on the scale that’s necessary."

Nature will surely adapt to higher temperatures itself as well. Let this promising research not distract us from tackling the root cause.