Coral death results from bacteria fed by algae

(Santa Barbara, Calif.) Bacteria and algae are combining to kill coral and human activities are compounding the problem.

Scientists have discovered an indirect microbial mechanism whereby bacteria kill coral with the help of algae. Human activities are contributing to the growth of algae on coral reefs, setting the stage for the long-term continued decline of coral.

Reporting in the June 5 on-line version of the scientific journal Ecology Letters, scientists described laboratory experiments on coral and algae.

First author Jennifer Smith, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explained that the team of scientists, as part of a research expedition to the Line Islands, put algae and coral in chambers of seawater with filters between them. All of the corals with neighboring algae died, while coral without neighboring algae did not die. However, with the addition of an antibiotic, coral death even in the presence of algae was prevented, showing that bacteria fed by the algae are the agents of coral death. "We are the first to link these processes together," said Smith.

"This study tightly links the fields of microbiology with coral reef ecology to help guide reef conservation efforts," said senior author Forest Rohwer, assistant professor of microbiology at San Diego State University.

"Our study shows that bacteria are the front line that kill corals," Smith explained. "Algae release sugar, fueling bacterial growth on the corals. These bacteria suffocate the coral by cutting off the supply of oxygen. Once the corals die, this frees more space for more algae to grow. We think this process sets up a positive feedback loop that accelerates the rate of decline in already damaged reef ecosystems."

The report describes the other conditions that put coral reefs at risk. Overfishing reduces the number of fish that graze

Contact: Gail Gallessich
University of California - Santa Barbara

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