Mote battles unprecedented threat to Florida’s coral reefs; extinction a threat

Florida’s coral reefs are facing an unprecedented, deadly and rapidly spreading coral disease outbreak — putting them at risk of functional extinction — and Mote Marine Laboratory scientists are accelerating their innovative efforts to secure the reefs’ future.

As of March 2019, stony coral tissue loss disease is plaguing nearly half the coral species on the Florida Reef Tract, with mortality rates frequently exceeding 80 percent.

The outbreak stretches from Martin County to Key West, with potentially similar disease signs being investigated at other Caribbean reefs. Susceptible corals include maze, brain, boulder and other species groups that form the essential foundations of the Florida Reef Tract, an economic engine worth $8.5 billion and supporting 70,400 jobs.

Recognizing these high stakes, scientists at Mote — an independent, nonprofit institution — are raising the bar on disease research and responsive reef restoration, as leaders within a state-federal-nongovernment Disease Advisory Committee of more than three dozen partners focused on the outbreak. As of March 2019, Mote is: undertaking the first year of its new Florida Keys Coral Disease Response & Restoration Initiative; taking care of rescued coral fragments from sites ahead of the disease front and initiating longer-term coral gene banking efforts; reporting its new research results on bacterial changes in the infected corals; and implementing and evaluating science-based coral restoration as a key recovery strategy, with Mote co-leading a multi-institutionRestoration Trials Team.

“There is no stopping this coral plague from running its course — it is highly unlikely that our devastated coral populations will be able to execute a natural recovery on their own,” said Mote President & CEO Dr. Michael P. Crosby. “That means conservation strategies alone cannot solve this dilemma. Mote has proposed a bold science-based coral disease response and restoration initiative that is essential to actively assist the recovery of this ecosystem. The Florida Legislature is currently considering a $2 million request for launching our proposed collaborative initiative, and Senator Marco Rubio was instrumental in recently shepherding a Congressional $5 million addition to NOAA’s budget to help support our initiative to respond to this environmental disaster.”

“Mote is one of several dedicated organizations in Florida taking the lead in ensuring the Florida Reef Tract will be enjoyed by future generations,” said Senator Rubio. “Floridians are grateful for the expertise and passion Mote researchers bring to their work, and I know Mote will make a meaningful difference with the unprecedented federal resources for the restoration of our reefs that I secured as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. South Florida’s economy depends on it.”

“Our reefs are a vital resource for many of our Florida communities and we must take bold steps to respond to coral disease and protect this vital ecosystem,” said State Representative Holly Raschein, District 120. “Mote’s valuable work has never been more important in ensuring that we use sound science-based solutions to ensure that we can restore and protect our reefs, for our residents, tourists and future generations.”

Dr. Erinn Muller, IC2R3 Science Director and Manger of Mote’s Coral Health & Disease Research Program, is leading Mote’s pursuit of those science-based solutions.  “We are screening our native coral genotypes for resistance to stressors, and we have some genotypes highly resistant to stony coral tissue loss disease,” Muller said.  “Through restoration, we now have the power to incorporate that trait within our population, along with genetic diversity to ensure resistance to a variety of stressors. Now is a critical time. Either we’re going to lose our coral reefs in the next decade, or were going to make sure they survive and continue the functions that are so critical for our livelihoods and our wellbeing.”


Progress so far

In pursuit of the pathogen(s):

Scientists suspect that stony coral tissue loss disease is bacterial and waterborne, but confirming the pathogen(s) and understanding the disease process remain important challenges. Now, a collaborative study funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and conducted by Mote, NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, and FWC, is chipping away at those challenges.

“Some of the new research coming out of our lab, that’s hot off the press, suggests that there is a unique bacterial signature of these corals after they are sick,” Muller said, noting that corals normally carry bacteria, but bacteria are diverse and can be helpful or harmful. “Even corals that have survived the event but were exposed to the disease have a certain bacterial signature that’s different from those of corals from reefs that haven’t been exposed.”

Project partners collected 75 coral tissue samples and 90 samples apiece of water and sediment, from three site types: healthy, diseased and previously diseased but without active disease still present. From the samples, they isolated and analyzed a specific stretch of DNA that varies among different bacteria. They found that bacterial groups of the corals differed significantly among the healthy, diseased and previously diseased sites, and the bacteria in the scientific orders known as Rhodobacterales and Rhizobiales may play an important role in the stony coral tissue loss disease.

“So we know there are a few different groups of bacteria associated with this disease,” Muller said. “Whether they represent primary pathogens or a secondary response to something else that is the primary pathogen, we don’t know yet.”

The project also tested how bacterial communities of the sediments and water differed among the same sites to try and identify potential reservoirs of putative pathogens. Water in diseased sites had greater numbers of bacteria in the orders Rhodobacterales, similar to the bacteria found within the diseased corals. These results indicate that diseased reefs may have a specific bacterial signature within the water column.

This year, project partners are leading disease-transmission experiments in the lab to study the bacterial changes in more detail, observing how bacterial markers shift as the coral gets exposed, sickens, and dies or recovers.


Resilience and restoration

Several years ago, the future of coral ecosystems was dismal — that has now changed dramatically,   Crosby said: “While many coral scientists and environmental activists around the world saw coral bleaching events and devastating coral diseases of recent years and concluded that it’s impossible to replace a dead 50- or 100-year old coral in a decade, I contend that now is not the time for scientists to throw in the towel. Investing time and resources, and conducting world-class research into restoring coral reefs is not a choice, it is a necessity. Mote scientists have developed a novel micro-fragmentation and re-skinning technique that can bring back to life the massive and slow growing corals that are vital reef building structure — and we can do this in just one or two years instead of hundreds of years it would take nature to rebuild a reef on its own. This is something of a Coral Lazarus Effect.”

Muller explained, “We take fragments of these corals, chop them into tiny microfragments, and allow genetically identical microfragments to fuse and then re-skin the skeletons of larger corals. Microfragmentation accelerates their growth rate by 40-50 times what you’d see in nature.”

This method is especially powerful when scientists choose genetically diverse corals — which, as a group, have a larger assortment of stress-resistant traits — and promote their best traits through controlled sexual reproduction efforts.

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