Climate resilient microalgae could help restore coral reefs

29 april 2022

White corals

Corals bleaching due to high water temperatures.

Coral species exhibit different temperature tolerances. This is in part due to the composition of their microalgae symbionts. With a new method, researchers from Uppsala University were able to predict how individual microalgae might behave under future temperature stress and identify more tolerant coral symbionts.

Coral reefs provide sustenance and income to an estimated half billion people, attract tourists, protect coastlines and are among the most biodiverse ecosystems on our planet. Despite their importance, more than half of the world’s coral reefs are now under stress, primarily due to climate change and related human activities. Stressed corals ‘bleach’, which describes the disruption of the symbiosis between corals and their photosynthetic partners, heavily pigmented microalgae that provide most of the energy to their coral host.

This causes the coral skeleton to appear white (hence bleached) and leaves the coral in a state of energy shortage until new – perhaps less temperature-sensitive – symbiont cells are taken up from the environment. The temperature sensitivity of a coral thus depends in part on the temperature sensitivity of its symbionts, which has made the investigation of temperature tolerance among coral symbionts an intense research topic.

Temperature stress

In a new study published in the ISME Journal (Springer Nature), scientists investigated how different species of coral symbionts react to temperature stress. The difference in temperature tolerance between different coral symbiont species was already known, but there are very few studies of the difference between individual cells within the same species.

Linhong Xiao
Linhong Xiao, Postdoct at Department of Organ-
ismal Biology. Photo: Uppsala University

“These differences among cells allowed us to predict the temperature tolerance of a cell before the stress actually occurred,” says Linhong Xiao, first author of the study. “For one thing, this might be handy for coral reef monitoring because it enables us to recognise more heat-tolerant cells in a rapid, minimally-invasive assay. By providing the means to identify and select more temperature-tolerant coral symbionts, the method also holds potential to accelerate ongoing coral reef restoration efforts by ‘experimentally evolving’ temperature-tolerant coral symbionts which could, conceivably, be introduced back to coral host larvae in order to make corals more robust against climate change,” says Xiao.

Lars Behrendt
Lars Behrendt, Assistant Professor at Department
of Organismal Biology.
Photo: Niklas Norberg Wirtén/SciLifeLab

In contrast to previous studies, this study used a unique miniaturised approach consisting of a microscope and a credit card-sized ‘microchip’ that houses many hundreds of individual coral symbiont cells to assess differences in temperature sensitivity among single cells. Through this unique approach, the researchers were able to determine that individual cells within each species behave quite differently from their sister cells

“We hope our new method can help to predict the thermal tolerance of corals in the field by extracting and measuring symbiont cells from live corals. While we still have a long way to go, our tools might help coral reef monitoring and also increase the speed at which we can create stocks of climate-resilient coral symbionts, a frontier research area,” says Lars Behrendt, who headed the study.