Please select your home edition
Edition
Grapefruit Graphics 2019 - Leaderboard

Project Phoenix: DNA unlocks a new understanding of coral

by Melissa Lyne 19 Sep 22:03 UTC
Scientists can't identify many coral species accurately—even in well-researched locations. © Tom Bridge

Scientists have developed a new genetic tool that can help them better understand and ultimately work to save coral reefs.

"Surprisingly, we still don't know how many coral species live on the Great Barrier Reef, how to identify them, or which species live where. And those are the first steps in saving an ecosystem like that," said Dr Peter Cowman from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University (Coral CoE at JCU).

Dr Cowman led an international study on coral classification. Classification explains how species are related to each other. Shared similarities and differences provide a key to help identify species. For example, dogs and cats are classified on different branches of the evolutionary tree using their body design.

A seemingly finer detail, like how cats can retract their claws and dogs cannot, helps people decide whether a newly discovered species of small carnivore is more like a dog or a cat.

Dr Cowman said an important challenge when identifying corals is that the same species can grow in many different ways.

"For instance, some species can grow with either a plate or branch structure. The study found classifying corals by their physical characteristics didn't match the classifications based on their genetics," he said.

Species identification underpins almost all biological and ecological research, and the new study challenges more than 200 years of coral classification. The researchers say the 'traditional' method does not accurately capture the differences between species or their evolutionary relationships.

Co-author Professor Andrew Baird, also from Coral CoE at JCU, led a recent scientific journey along the Great Barrier Reef, uncovering 'treasure troves' of new, unidentified coral species.

"The traditional classification of corals is dead," Prof Baird said.

"But these new molecular tools allow us to reinvent a new classification system on the ashes of the old. Hence, the name we have given to the research: Project Phoenix," he said.

"These are exciting times to be a coral taxonomist."

"We need to review the way we currently identify corals," said co-author Dr Tom Bridge from Coral CoE at JCU, who is also the curator of corals at the Queensland Museum.

Dr Bridge said research in the past ten to 20 years has already revolutionised the understanding of the older branches on the evolutionary tree of corals. But, to date, there has been little progress on the more recent twigs of the 'tree'—the living species—particularly with the most diverse and ecologically-important group: the Acropora.

"The Acropora are the branching 'staghorn' corals that dominate reefs," Dr Bridge said. "Yet, even in well-researched locations like the Great Barrier Reef, we can't identify many of these species accurately."

Dr Cowman said the traditional method doesn't reflect the tens of millions of years of coral evolution.

"At the moment, we're flying blind," he said.

Dr Andrea Quattrini, curator of corals at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, developed the new genetic tool. She said it provides a way forward with plans to secure the future of coral reefs.

"By comparing thousands of key genetic coral features, we were able to discern the evolutionary relationships of corals from the Great Barrier Reef and broader Indo-Pacific region," Dr Quattrini said.

"The result is a new classification that provides important scientific knowledge to assess the various intervention strategies currently being proposed on the Great Barrier Reef and elsewhere."

Some of the interventions being proposed on the reef include hybridising species and moving some populations south.

"It's clear we do not know enough about many of the species we're dealing with. This new method can help generate the robust science we need to assess such proposals," Dr Bridge said.

Paper

Cowman P, Quattrini A, Bridge T, Watkins-Colwell G, Fadli N, Grinblat M, Roberts E, McFadden C, Miller D, Baird A. (2020). 'An enhanced target-enrichment bait set for Hexacorallia provides phylogenomic resolution of the staghorn corals (Acroporidae) and close relatives'. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. DOI: 10.1016/j.ympev.2020.106944.

Related Articles

Extinctions linked to new assemblages of species
As the world undergoes profound environmental change Scientists have found that as the world undergoes profound environmental change, identifying and protecting 'novel' communities of species can help prevent extinctions within vulnerable ecosystems. Posted on 12 Oct
Marine reserves enhance fish populations
Portfolio of protected areas within marine parks secure sustainable fish populations Scientists say a 'portfolio' of protected areas within marine parks such as the Great Barrier Reef can help secure sustainable fish populations. Posted on 5 Oct
The hidden life of 'dead' coral reefs
New tech uncovers that coral rubble can still sustain life A new study suggests 'dead' coral rubble can still sustain life, with a large number of tiny animals hidden and living amongst the ruins. Posted on 6 Sep
Nooks, crannies and critters
A new way to measure the complexity of the world's habitats Researchers have discovered a new way to measure the complexity of the world's habitats - a crucial factor as environments across the globe face extraordinary change. Posted on 29 Aug
Sharks almost gone from many reefs
Finding of a massive global study of the world's reefs A massive global study of the world's reefs has found sharks are 'functionally extinct' on nearly one in five of the reefs surveyed. Posted on 25 Jul
Governments resist World Heritage 'in Danger' list
World Heritage sites represent both natural and cultural heritage for global humanity A study published this week found national governments repeatedly resisted the placement of 41 UNESCO World Heritage sites - including the Great Barrier Reef - on the World Heritage in Danger list. Posted on 24 Jul
Life in the shallows becomes trap for baby sharks
Sharks with a greater tolerance for higher temperatures had greater tolerance for low oxygen levels Scientists can now explain how baby reef sharks tolerate living in the sometimes-extreme environments of their nurseries—but, they also say these habitats face an uncertain future which may leave newborn sharks 'trapped'. Posted on 24 Jul
Big vegetarians of the reef drive fish evolution
More than 6,000 fish species live on coral reefs across the globe A new study reveals the diets of reef fish dictate how fast different species evolve. The breakthrough adds another piece to the fascinating evolutionary puzzle of coral reefs and the fishes that live on them. Posted on 3 Jun
Severe coral loss leaves reefs with larger fish
New research on the Great Barrier Reef finds this comes at a cost New research on the Great Barrier Reef associates severe coral loss with substantial increases in the size of large, long-living herbivorous fish. Posted on 12 May
Can coral reefs 'have it all'?
Some reefs can still thrive with plentiful fish stocks and high fish biodiversity Though coral reefs are in sharp decline across the world, scientists say some reefs can still thrive with plentiful fish stocks, high fish biodiversity, and well-preserved ecosystem functions. Posted on 28 Apr
North Sails 2019 - NSVictoryList - FooterGJW Direct - Yacht 2019 - FooterGrapefruit Graphics 2019 - Footer