'Good' probiotic bacteria could save the endangered Great Barrier Coral Reefs, researchers claim

Probiotics have been widely successful in improving both human and animal health but their use in marine ecosystems has been unexplored until now

                            'Good' probiotic bacteria could save the endangered Great Barrier Coral Reefs, researchers claim
(Getty Images)

Probiotics could give the endangered coral reefs a new lease of life. A supplement of good bacteria can improve their health and help them cope with climate change and the rising water temperatures, say researchers from the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, an Australian non-profit organization. 

Researchers from the US, UK, Brazil, and Australia collaborated to study whether probiotics help corals grown in a lab setting. Encouraging by their findings, the team now hopes to save coral reefs - which are home to 25% of the ocean’s marine life - including the Great Barrier reef from climate change.

“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,”  Great Barrier Reef Foundation Managing Director Anna Marsden stated on the organization's official website. “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," she added in the media release on June 11.

Climate change is threatening to destroy coral reefs, making them prone to infections and bleaching, where they turn white. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), roughly one-quarter of the population worldwide is considered beyond repair, with another two-thirds under serious threat. What is more, these reefs support the livelihoods of 1 billion people globally.

The international group of researchers fed coral reefs with good microorganisms. Federal University of Rio de Janeiro Professor Raquel Peixoto said it was similar to how humans consume yogurt. The team then exposed the population to stresses and found that the probiotic group fared better than the group without the supplement.  “This finding is an exciting breakthrough in boosting the ability of coral species to survive in times of stress and help them cope with a changing climate," says Peixoto.

(Great Barrier Reef Foundation)

What's next?

According to the researchers, these findings could find applications in Australia's National Sea Simulator, where researchers are growing corals to help them survive.  The population from the site is then transferred into the Reef as part of their reef restoration projects. 

Even then, they have low survival rates on the Reef, says Marsden. So giving them probiotics at the Sea Simulator will help, she adds.“It will add another tool to Reef researchers’ toolkits as they commence the world’s most ambitious Reef restoration and adaptation effort (Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program).”

Meanwhile, Peixoto and her team are fine-tuning their probiotic concoction. They are trying to figure out which bacterial species is best suited for a particular coral species in the world’s largest artificial ocean (Biosphere 2) in Arizona and laboratories at the University of Hawaii.

Additionally, they are trying to come up with better methods to apply probiotics on coral reefs. For example, they are working on delivering parcels of "slow-release probiotics" to help reefs tolerate heat stress.  “Saving the Reef is a huge task, and this pioneering research project is just one of the ways that we’re making a real difference with our partners,” Marsden said.

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