Resilience to Climate Change: Corals Carefully Organize Proteins to Form Rock-Hard Skeletons

Stylophora pistillata, a common stony coral in the Indo-Pacific.
Credit: Kevin Wyman/Rutgers University

Scientists’ findings suggest corals will withstand climate change.

Charles Darwin, the British naturalist who championed the theory of evolution, noted that corals form far-reaching structures, largely made of limestone, that surround tropical islands. He didn’t know how they performed this feat.

Now, Rutgers scientists have shown that coral structures consist of a biomineral containing a highly organized organic mix of proteins that resembles what is in our bones. Their study, published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, shows for the first time that several proteins are organized spatially – a process that’s critical to forming a rock-hard coral skeleton.

“Our research revealed an intricate network of skeletal proteins that interact spatially, which likely applies to all stony corals,” said Manjula P. Mummadisetti, who led the research while she was a postdoctoral associate in the Rutgers Environmental Biophysics and Molecular Ecology Laboratory led by senior author Paul G. Falkowski. She is now a senior scientist at AVMBioMed in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. “It’s important to understand the mechanisms of coral biomineralization and how these invaluable animals persist during the era of anthropogenic climate change.”

“Our findings suggest that corals will withstand climate change caused by human activities, based on the precision, robustness, and resilience of their impressive process for forming rock-hard skeletons,” said Falkowski, a Distinguished Professor in the School of Arts and Sciences and School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Coral reefs protect shorelines threatened by erosion and storms, and provide fish habitat, nursery and spawning grounds. Indeed, coral reefs provide food for about a half-billion people, who also depend on them to make a living. However, warming ocean waters from climate change put corals at risk from deadly bleaching and disease. More acidic ocean waters, sea-level rise, unsustainable fishing, vessels that damage reefs, invasive species, marine debris and tropical cyclones pose additional threats, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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