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Bleached Coral Could Be Environment Warning

ANAHEIM, CALIF. -- The dying corals of the Florida Keys could be an early warning of tough times ahead for the planet's environment, Cornell University ecologists worry. The reason: Hundred-year-old corals are succumbing to diseases they previously survived.

Increasing global temperatures and worsening pollution, the ecologists say, could place so much stress on ecosystems that organisms of all kinds will face new challenges.

"When we see corals that have persisted for hundreds of years suddenly die from opportunistic infections, we have to wonder what has changed in their environment," says C. Drew Harvell, associate professor of ecology at Cornell.

Harvell organized a session,"Diseases of the Ocean: A New Environmental Challenge," at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today (Jan. 22) to bring together leading microbiologists, ecologists and pathologists to evaluate the environmental threats from disease in the ocean. Speaking in the session was Kiho Kim, a postdoctoral research associate with Harvell at Cornell, who reported on an unusual disease in Florida Keys corals.

Kim said that monitoring of sea fan corals in the Keys, where up to 40 percent of sea fans are infected by a fungal disease and many have already died, suggests that lower water quality and higher ocean temperatures stress corals and increase their susceptibility to disease. He said the Florida findings support a growing consensus among scientists worldwide that as ocean ecosystems become degraded they will offer more favorable places for disease outbreaks and the emergence of new pathogens.

"We didn't begin our study of sea fans to monitor death and destruction," Harvell said. "Originally, we were interested in the natural disease-resistance properties of corals, such as the anti-bacterial and anti-fungal chemicals they produce, because some of those compounds may be useful in human medicine. That disease resistanc
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Contact: Roger Segelken
hrs2@cornell.edu
607-255-9736
Cornell University News Service
22-Jan-1999


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