17 Sept 2019 - The fate of the world's coral reefs could depend on how well the sea creatures equip their offspring to cope with global warming.
About half the world's coral has been lost due to warming seas that make their world hostile. Instead of vivid and floral, coral bleach pale as temperatures rise. This happens because the peculiar animal cohabitates with algae, which expel under stress. When that happens, coral lose their color and a life partner that sustains them, so they starve.
Yet, hope occurs in aquariums at the USC campus near downtown Los Angeles and at the Australian Institute of Marine Science. There, biologists study coral's unusual ability to shuffle their so-called symbionts -- the algae colonies inside their cells -- as a coping mechanism to potentially gain an advantage in a changing environment.
For the first time, the researchers have shown that adult coral can pass along this ability to shuffle their symbionts to their offspring. It's a process that occurs in addition to traditional DNA transfer, and it's never been seen before until scientists began captive breeding research in labs on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
"What we're finding is that corals can pass their shuffled complement of algal partners, or symbionts, to their offspring to bestow a potential survival advantage, and that's a new discovery," said Carly Kenkel, an assistant professor of biology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. "We care about this because coral reefs do so much for us. A reef provides breakwater for storms, fish protein people need and biodiversity we love and find beautiful."