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Immune health may be key to saving the world’s corals

Despite the fact that hundreds of millions of people and at least a quarter of all marine life depend on the world’s corals for survival, we are losing these important reefs at an alarming and unprecedented rate.

Dr. Caroline Palmer is a visiting researcher at the University of Plymouth who has been studying the immune health of corals for more than a decade.

Dr. Palmer has discovered that corals with higher immune defenses are less likely to bleach or become diseased. She has recently authored a paper which suggests that focusing research on coral immunity could improve reef conservation efforts.

Dr. Palmer’s latest work is based on a theory that explains how corals might coexist with specific microorganisms as a “holobiont,” while resisting infection and other threats.

She has also developed a model of coral susceptibility, and has found that investing in immunity enables coral to tolerate more damage before initiating an immune response. This model shows how corals may vary in their response to disturbances, such as bleaching events.

“There is no question that climate change is devastating coral reef systems. But if we are to conserve or restore them, we need to understand coral health – what drives tolerance and how can we promote it,” said Dr. Palmer. “If you have a strong immune system, and the energy to support it, you are more likely to be healthy and to survive adverse conditions.”

Bleaching has been the focus of most coral research and is often distinguished from coral immunity, but Dr. Palmer proposes that bleaching is actually a component of coral holobiont immunity.

Dr. Palmer also believes that an immunological model could help increase the tolerance of corals, preparing them for adverse conditions and future warming.

“Coral biologists are racing to conserve coral reefs before it’s too late. There is currently a lot of interest in creating more tolerant corals through genetic engineering and of restoring reefs by targeting more resilient corals. I fully support these approaches, but believe understanding what drives coral health will be key to their success.”

Dr Palmer is currently the lead scientist on the Seeking Survivors project, which is focused on coral health in Costa Rica.

The study is published in the Nature Research journal Communications Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Caroline Palmer / University of Plymouth

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