Today’s Solutions: February 04, 2023

With water temperatures rising as a result of climate change, corals are finding it increasingly difficult to survive. Probiotics could help provide a potential solution to help these crucial marine ecosystems become more resilient against stresses related to climate change. A team of researchers at Cornell’s Weill Medical College is now working to make that a reality.

The team is part of Seed Health, the biotech startup running the project. In their lab sit large tanks filled with ocean water, sand, and corals surrounded by friendly microorganisms. The scientists can tweak the environmental conditions of the tanks with high precision, enabling the team to research the potential of probiotics to make corals more resilient to bleaching as the ocean warms up.

How do coral probiotics work?

Similar to humans, corals rely on a complex microbiome that consists of hundreds of thousands of microorganisms that help with nutrition and protection against diseases. Just like with humans, stress can disrupt the balance between good and bad bacteria in their bodies.

Research has found that probiotics can help prevent and delay such destabilization and protect corals against bleaching — the process in which corals expel symbiotic algae as a result of such stresses as rising water temperatures.

Boosting coral immunity

In the new study, the scientists are researching how coral expresses immunity-related genes and whether it’s possible to raise the threshold that leads to coral bleaching. The high degree of control in the lab allows the scientists to simulate “virtually every wavelength of light possible to create different environments,” says Raja Dhir, cofounder and co-CEO of Seed Health. “You can even simulate moonlight in the case that their circadian rhythms might be factored in relation to time.”

The team also says it can tweak the pH levels and temperature in the medium within a tenth of a degree. All the collected data is monitored in the cloud, which “is measuring every single point in real-time, all of the time,” says Dhir.

From lab to ocean tests

The project is part of a multi-year project that includes tests both in the lab and in the ocean. In addition to the lab study, the team has to demonstrate that they can successfully administer probiotics to coral reefs. One approach may involve a gel material similar to a nicotine patch to gradually release the beneficial organisms to the coral. “A lot of these ideas, and biomimicry-inspired materials, are being evaluated right now,” says Dhir. The moment the team has a proven approach, they will move the tests into the ocean.

Additional sources: ScienceAdvancesCoral microbiome manipulation elicits metabolic and genetic restructuring to mitigate heat stress and evade mortality

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