A climate change study that doesn’t end in tears

Posted by at 9:54AM

Corals from the Ofu Lagoon, American Samoa

As an Earth Systems major, I can say it’s sometimes difficult to stay positive about my choice of field because there are so many urgent and intricate problems woven into the daily fabric of life–and in order to learn how to solve them, you have to appreciate how intricate and difficult to undo they really are.  So it’s nice when conservation research pays off, especially for animals in as dire straits as corals are.

Awesome Stanford professor Stephen Palumbi–who among other accomplishments has used molecular genetics to track the incidence of marine mammal meat in canned tuna and formed a band called ‘Flagella’–has found a key difference in the genomics of heat-resistant corals from the waters of American Samoa that might be used in genetic therapy for corals worldwide, potentially saving coral reefs from the worst effects of global warming.  When water temperatures rise above a certain extent, corals get stressed and their photosynthetic partners, zooxanthellae, are expelled from the tissue of the coral, leaving it hard-pressed to manufacture enough carbohydrates without the ability to make sugars from sunlight.    Palumbi and other researchers discovered in their warm-water corals that 60 heat stress genes were activated whether or not the corals were subjected to excessive heat.  If this pattern could be transferred to cooler-water corals, it could potentially avert cases of coral bleaching from extreme heat.

This treatment, if applied, doesn’t solve all the problems coral reefs are facing in the future, of course.  Corals will still have to contend with the rising acidity in the world’s oceans due to the excessive deposition of carbon dioxide from our increasingly CO2-filled atmosphere–an acidity change that makes it harder for corals to build skeletons, because waters become less saturated with calcium carbonate.  Runaway algae growth is also a possibility and a threat, and more frequent and violent tropical storms are predicted in future years, which could be a huge challenge for coral communities to withstand.  However, finding ways to combat heat stress is a necessary first step (we are committed to further global warming, we might be able to stave off the worst ocean acidification), and Palumbi and his team have unlocked a very important discovery.

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