Melanin May Keep Corals Alive Through Climate Change

yellow coral photo

Photo via prilfish via Flickr CC

Australian researchers have made a breakthrough in understanding how corals keep their immune systems strong -- a breakthrough that could help scientists understand how corals can last through, or adapt to, global climate change. Warmer ocean temperatures, pollution, a loss of symbiotic species through overfishing and other stress factors weaken corals' immune systems and make it difficult for them to recover from bleaching. However, the scientists have found that melanin, an important part of the immune system in invertebrates, may help keep corals from bleaching in the first place. Understanding how this part of a coral's immune system works could lead to their survival in hotter, more acidic, fish-depleted oceans. A press release from the ARC Centre for Excellence, Coral Reef Studies states reveals the findings. Melanin within corals may be used to stop harmful UV light from reaching the symbiotic algae and causing bleaching.

WATCH VIDEO: Great Barrier Reef, coral and algae live together as a single symbiotic unit.

"Understanding the immune system of reef-building corals will help to reduce the impact of coral diseases and environmental stresses," says Caroline Palmer, lead author of the publication. "Potentially, this will enable us to more accurately predict the vulnerability of coral reefs to disease and bleaching, before there are obvious signs of stress."

coral reef color photo

Typical signs of pigmentation response, an inflammatory-like response to stressors exhibited by massive species of the reef coral Porites.
Photograph courtesy of Caroline Palmer. Photo via ARC

The scientists found that corals that grow quickly have less energy to devote to keeping their immune systems strong, so they are most vulnerable when it comes to changing oceanic conditions. By understanding how melanin production impacts immunity, how different corals respond when impacted, and most importantly, which corals are most susceptible to immune system problems, is going to be a significant part of building and maintaining coral reef marine preserves before it's too late.

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