Probiotics Could Help Corals Fight Disease

Written by on July 14, 2014 in Marine Life

A study published last month reveals that probiotics could save corals from potentially deadly diseases.

Elkhorn coral, Acropora palmata, with suffering from white band disease.

Elkhorn coral, Acropora palmata, with suffering from white band disease. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

White Band Disease (WDB) has been killing corals in the Caribbean for a while, but no one is quite sure exactly which microbes, bacteria, fungi or viruses cause WBD. It can wipe out vast stretches of corals and have negative impacts on the entire reef ecosystem. As waters warm and oceans acidify, corals are being pushed to their limits and becoming more and more susceptible to diseases.

Previous studies have focused on taking healthy corals and infecting them to see what happened. This study, led by Dr. Michael Sweet of the University of Derby, took a different approach: they took infected coral and tried to cure it with antibiotics.

By studying the corals this way, the researchers were able to determine what caused WBD thorough a process of elimination. They tested four different antibiotics to see what effect they had on the disease and found that two successfully cured the corals.

‘We found the disease is caused by at least three bacterial pathogens but what we don’t know is if it’s one of them, or all of them in a complex consortium,’ Dr. Sweet explained in a news release. ‘The initial bacterial infection causes the coral immune system to be hindered, reducing the number of defensive stinging cells and the amount of mucus the corals utilize to keep them healthy under normal circumstances. That’s when the ciliates come in and eat the tissue. It’s a bit like when you have a cold and you become more vulnerable to other diseases in the surrounding environment.’

Even though two different antibiotics cured the corals, the researchers do not advocate using this tactic with corals in the ocean, as excessive antibiotic use can create antibiotic-resistant microbes and superbugs.

Instead, they suggest using a probiotic to replace the natural defenses that the coral loses when it gets sick.

“We’d like to try and develop a probiotic, basically like a Yakult, where you can dose a coral that has a disease with a community of healthy good bacteria and let the coral fight off the pathogen itself,” Dr. Sweet said. “If we can keep the coral happy until the environment settlesdown, then there’s no reason we couldn’t save those particular corals.”

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Copyright © 2014 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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