• Scientists have discovered a new method of pinpointing corals most under threat from warming oceans.
  • Coral reefs provide an essential environment for fish, which serve as food and a source of income for about 500 million people.
  • The research could help to prevent the loss of reefs, which are an essential part of the ocean's ecosystem.

Researchers have found a new way to identify heat-stressed corals.

The work could help scientists pinpoint the coral species that need protection from warming ocean waters linked to climate change.

“This is similar to a blood test to assess human health,” says senior author Debashish Bhattacharya, a professor in the biochemistry and microbiology department in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

“We can assess coral health by measuring the metabolites (chemicals created for metabolism) they produce and, ultimately, identify the best interventions to ensure reef health.

“Coral bleaching from warming waters is an ongoing worldwide ecological disaster. Therefore, we need to develop sensitive diagnostic indicators that can be used to monitor reef health before the visible onset of bleaching to allow time for preemptive conservation efforts.”

Coral reefs provide habitat, nursery, and spawning grounds for fish, food for about 500 million people along with their livelihoods, and coastline protection from storms and erosion.

But global climate change warms ocean waters and threatens corals, resulting in coral bleaching and disease. Other threats to corals include sea-level rise, a more acidic ocean, unsustainable fishing, damage from vessels, invasive species, marine debris, and tropical cyclones, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The new study in Science Advances examined how Hawaiian stony corals respond to heat stress, with a goal of identifying chemical (metabolite) indicators of stress. Heat stress can lead to the loss of algae that live in symbiosis with corals, resulting in a white appearance (bleaching) and, potentially, the loss of reefs.

Climate Change Restoring ocean life Environment and Natural Resource Security
The research could help to prevent the loss of reefs.
Image: Rutgers University

Scientists subjected the heat-resistant Montipora capitata and heat-sensitive Pocillopora acuta coral species to several weeks of warm seawater in tanks at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology. Then they analyzed the metabolites produced and compared them with other corals not subjected to heat stress.

“Our work, for the first time, identified a variety of novel and known metabolites that may be used as diagnostic indicators for heat stress in wild coral before or in the early stages of bleaching,” Bhattacharya says.

The scientists are validating their coral diagnosis results in a much larger study and the results look promising. The scientists are also developing a “coral hospital” featuring a new lab-on-a-chip device, which could check coral health in the field via metabolite and protein indicators.

Additional coauthors are from the University of Rhode Island, Stanford University, and Rutgers.