• Image courtesy Great Barrier Reef Foundation; Photographer Gary Cranitch Queensland Museum
    Image courtesy Great Barrier Reef Foundation; Photographer Gary Cranitch Queensland Museum

In a scientific breakthrough, researchers have proven that feeding coral a dose of good bacteria increases their overall health and tolerance to stresses related to climate change.

The research project won the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s Out of the Blue Box Reef Innovation Challenge People’s Choice Award supported by The Tiffany & Co. Foundation.

Federal University of Rio de Janeiro Professor Raquel Peixoto and her international research collaborators, including scientists from Brazil, the US, the UK and James Cook University in Australia, have been able to prove 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.

Great Barrier Reef Foundation MD Anna Marsden said that before this research project, coral's interactions with good bacteria had not been researched as thoroughly as now. 

"People may be surprised to find out that just like us, corals rely on a host of good bacteria to help keep them healthy and, just like us, the balance between good and bad bacteria is often disrupted in times of stress. 

"Probiotics have been widely and successfully used to improve both human and animal health, however their use in marine ecosystems has been largely unexplored until now.

"It is fitting to announce this breakthrough for coral survival during World Ocean Week, a time when the world is reminded of the importance of oceans and its coral reefs as critical ecosystems that are essential to the future of our planet.

"Not only are coral reefs home to 25% of the ocean’s marine life but they also support the livelihoods of one billion people globally.

"However, we are increasingly seeing corals becoming stressed due to threats such as rising water temperatures which is causing them to become prone to infections and less likely to survive," she said. 

Professor Peixoto’s research team are currently running tests on different species of corals in the world’s largest artificial ocean (the Biosphere 2) in Arizona and in laboratories at the University of Hawaii to refine which groups of good bacteria are the best for each species.

They are also investigating new methods to scale up the application for use on coral reefs, such as delivering parcels of slow release probiotics to targeted reefs during times of heat stress. 

The Tiffany & Co. Foundation has supported ocean conservation efforts for two decades. 

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