This curious arrangement is one of Nature’s most delicate and complex partnerships – a collaboration now facing
grave threats from climate change.
The symbiosis between coral – a primitive animal – and zooxanthellae, tiny one-celled plants, is not only powerful
enough to build the largest living organism on the planet, the Great Barrier Reef, but also underpins the economies and living
standards of many tropical nations and societies who harvest their food from the reefs or have developing tourism industries.
The issue of whether the partnership is robust enough to withstand the challenges of climate change is driving a worldwide
scientific effort to decipher how corals and their symbiotic algae communicate with one another, says Professor David Yellowlees
of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS) and James Cook University.
“It’s an incredibly intricate relationship in which the corals feed the algae and try to control their diet,
and the algae in turn use sunlight to produce “junk food” – carbohydrates and fats – for the corals
“Where it all breaks down is when heated water lingers over the reef and the corals expel the algae and then begin
to slowly starve to death. This is the bleaching phenomenon Australians are by now so familiar with, and which is such
a feature of global warming.”
The challenge for scientists is to understand the ‘chemical conversation’ that goes on between the corals and
zooxanthellae, the genes which control it – and to explore whether corals which lose their primary partners can survive
using other algae or must inevitably die.
Prof Yellowlees and Dr Bill Leggat will shortly release a new review of the current state of knowledge about the metabolism
of the coral symbiosis in the journal Plant Cell and Environment.
“Coral symbiosis takes place mainly in clear, clean nutrient-poor waters where food is so scarce the corals need
a partner to help feed them.
“We know for example the corals provide carbon as CO2 which is processed by the algae to reprocess into
carbohydrates and fats using energy from sunlight, so they can feed. It’s a beautiful recycling process.
“The corals control the diet of the algae, to ensure it produces what they need. You could say they farm the algae,
much as we farm crops.
“And the algae serve as the junk food chefs, providing the corals favourite food to order.”
“Researchers in the Centre of Excellence are trying to understand the chemical and genetic basis for the conversation
that goes on between a coral and its particular algae, and to establish whether, if it loses its algae in a bleaching event,
it can establish the same relationship with a different strain of algae.
“In other words, how robust this symbiotic system is and whether it can withstand shocks from warming, ocean acidification,
changes in sunlight levels and other likely impacts from human activity.
“The bottom line here is the survival of the Great Barrier Reef and coral reefs the world over.”
Five times in the Earth’s history corals have been wiped out, or very close to it, suggesting they are highly vulnerable
to changes in ocean conditions, Prof. Yellowlees says. Some of these past events were probably triggered by past global warming
and ocean acidification.
Some scientists have speculated whether corals in crisis can be given a helping hand by humans in the form of new symbiotic
algae reared for the purpose – but these are very hard to grow outside of their coral hosts, and Prof Yellowlees is
doubtful this is a practical solution to major bleaching events affecting thousands of square kilometres of reef.
More likely, he feels, is that cryptic strains of algae which currently play little role in the symbiosis but are present
in corals may be able to take over the role of junk food chef and keep the corals going on their preferred diet. To what extent
this can happen is not yet known.
Adapted from materials provided by ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies.