Probiotics: A Panacea for Our Coral Reefs?

By: Yosef Scher  |  September 20, 2021

By Yosef Scher, Staff Writer

It is well-known that probiotics are beneficial to humans, but recent discoveries have shown that probiotics may actually be the solution to saving our coral reefs. 

Coral reefs are a vital part of the global marine ecosystem. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, “[d]espite covering less than 0.1% of the ocean floor, reefs host more than one-quarter of all marine fish species, in addition to many other marine animals. Additionally, reefs provide a wide variety of ecosystem services such as subsistence food, protection from flooding, and sustaining the fishing and tourism industries.” Furthermore, scientists estimate that coral reefs “support over 500 million people worldwide, who rely on them for daily subsistence, mostly in poor countries.”

Increasing ocean temperatures, which many scientists attribute to global warming, have caused many coral reefs to become bleached. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary explains how this occurs: “[r]ising (or even falling) water temperatures can stress coral polyps, causing them to lose algae (or zooxanthellae) that live in the polyps’ tissues. This results in ‘coral bleaching,’ so-called because the algae give coral their color, and when the algae ‘jump ship,’ the coral turns completely white.” In recent years, coral bleaching has become a much more frequent phenomenon. For example, in 2017, researchers investigating the Great Barrier Reef, one of the most extensive coral reefs globally, noticed that around 50% of the reef’s corals had become bleached. Alarming statistics like this have caused scientists to begin to look for a way to save coral reefs.

Only within the last year or so have scientists proved the advantageous use of probiotics on the coral. Professor Raquel Peixoto at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro “prove[d] for the first time, in a laboratory setting, that feeding corals beneficial probiotics increases their overall health and improves their chance of survival during heat stress.” Peixoto is hopeful that her finding will help “coral species to survive in times of stress and help them cope with a changing climate.” Additionally, researchers Erika P. Santoro, Ricardo M. Borges, and other colleagues conducted an experiment that confirmed Professor Peixoto’s results. They took the same species of coral and simulated a heatwave in the water, which is the main reason the bleaching occurs. They then split the coral into two distinct groups: the control group and the experimental group. The control group was treated with a saline solution, and the experimental group was treated with a probiotics solution. They found that “nearly half of corals given a benign saline solution instead did not survive those same conditions” compared to the experimental group given the probiotics. Researchers believe that the next step is to apply probiotics to the wild corals and determine the results. Although some scientists are excited by this discovery, some scientists, such as Ty Roach, are skeptical. Roach thinks that this project of applying probiotics to coral reefs is “logistically challenging … [a]nd there could be unintended consequences.”

Coral reefs are an essential part of our planet and  face imminent danger due to rising temperatures. As inhabitors of Earth, we must do whatever we can to help the coral reefs survive to ensure that we will enjoy their benefits for generations to come. 

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