by Staff Writers
Stanford CA (SPX) Mar 09, 2017
Stanford marine biologists have discovered that corals activate a specific group of ancient, defensive genes when exposed to stressful environmental conditions. These stress-induced genes could serve as a kind of warning sign for coral bleaching events.
In the study, researchers monitored three coral colonies in a lagoon on Ofu Island, American Samoa, for their response to stressors like high temperatures, oxygen, and ocean acidity. On the hottest days, the researchers saw a significant change in which genes the corals were activating within their cells.
"They started using a whole set of genes that they had just not been using before," said Steve Palumbi, a professor of marine sciences, director of Hopkins Marine Station, and an author of the paper that outlines the study, recently published in Science Advances.
A snapshot of coral health
Under stressful conditions, a coral's normal cellular functions begin to fail. In response, the group of genes identified in this study triggers a process, called the unfolded protein response, that works to restore normal conditions within the cell. If conditions continue to worsen, the corals bleach and eventually die.
"For the first time, we are able to ask those corals, 'how are you doing?' They don't have a heartbeat. They don't have a pulse. We need to know their vital signs in order to understand how they react to the environment," Palumbi said.
An ancient stress response
"This response just shows how in sync corals are with their environment," said Ruiz-Jones, who was first author on the paper.
This stress response is not unique to corals. It's been observed in mammals as well as some yeast species. Humans activate the same ancient genes in response to diseases, like cancer. In times of stress, a cell's misfolded and unfolded proteins accumulate in the endoplasmic reticulum, a series of flattened, tube-like structures in the cell that assist with building proteins. The unfolded protein response is a reaction to the flood of misassembled proteins.
"It's basically the organism recognizing that something isn't right," Ruiz-Jones said.
Studying tough corals
Scientists believe that frequent, pulsing exposure to high temperatures may make corals stronger, much in the same way athletes train for competition. Understanding why some of the world's toughest corals are so heat-tolerant could help scientists identify and map other survivor coral colonies around the globe.
"We know that corals have the ability to adapt and evolve to warmer water than we thought before. We can use that as a primary asset to help them live through the next decades until we solve global climate change," Palumbi said.
Palumbi is also a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
Hong Kong (AFP) March 7, 2017
Hong Kong authorities have seized more than a tonne of shark fins as activists warn traders are sneaking the sought-after delicacy into the city by mislabelling shipments to get around bans by major transporters. The city is one of the world's biggest markets for shark fin - often served as a soup at expensive Chinese banquets - but it prohibits the trade in products taken from endangered ... read more
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