Health

Scientists Discover Slimy Microbes that May Help Keep Coral Reefs Healthy

Corals have evolved over millennia to live, and even thrive, in waters with few nutrients. In healthy reefs, the water is often exceptionally clear, mainly because corals have found ways to make optimal use of the few resources around them.

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Corals have evolved over millennia to live, and even thrive, in waters with few nutrients. In healthy reefs, the water is often exceptionally clear, mainly because corals have found ways to make optimal use of the few resources around them. Any change to these conditions can throw a coral’s health off balance.

Now, researchers at MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), in collaboration with oceanographers and marine biologists in Cuba, have identified microbes living within the slimy biofilms of some coral species that may help protect the coral against certain nutrient imbalances.

The team found these microbes can take up and “scrub out” nitrogen from a coral’s surroundings. At low concentrations, nitrogen can be an essential nutrient for corals, providing energy for them to grow. But an overabundance of nitrogen, for instance from the leaching of nitrogen-rich fertilizers into the ocean, can trigger mats of algae to bloom. The algae can outcompete coral for resources, leaving the reefs stressed and bleached of color.

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