OSU researchers close in on threat to coral reefs

The bleaching of coral reefs has become a major ecosystem threat. Oregon State University researchers will investigate a potential cause.
Courtesy Oregon State University

The bleaching of coral reefs has become a major ecosystem threat. Oregon State University researchers will investigate a potential cause.

Researchers at Oregon State University are studying two viruses that may be affecting coral reef ecosystems around the world.

While rising ocean acid levels — called climate change's "evil twin" — has been called out as a major threat to coral reefs, the viruses have been identified for the first time and associated with the microalgae that reside in corals.

OSU scientists will study how the viruses are affecting those algae, taking another step toward understanding the multiple threats that coral reefs are facing.

"We're way behind in our knowledge of how viral disease may affect coral health," said Adrienne Correa, a researcher with the Department of Microbiology at Oregon State University. "If viral infection is causing some bleaching, it could be important in the death of corals and contribute to reef decline. This potential threat from viruses is just starting to be recognized."

Research about the viruses, in work supported by the National Science Foundation, was published Thursday in the ISME Journal.

Corals and algae coexist in a symbiotic relationship in which the algae provide energy to the coral and contribute to the construction of reefs.

Coral abundance has declined about 80 percent in the Caribbean Sea in the past 30-40 years, and about one-third of all corals around the world are threatened with extinction.

“We’ve got sort of the perfect storm of stressors from multiple places really hammering reefs around the world,” Janet Lubchenco, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief, told the Associated Press earlier this week. “It’s a very serious situation.”

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