Global Coral Reef Ecosystem Health Focus of Newly Created Scientific Resource Available for International Research

Global Coral Reef Ecosystem Health Focus of Newly Created Scientific Resource Available for International Research

Published: Thursday, August 17, 2023

Scientists at the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience are working to further our understanding of microorganisms and their relationship with cnidarians, like corals and sea anemones. Their findings were recently published in a Nature Communications paper, "Systematic review of cnidarian microbiomes reveals insights into the structure, specificity, and fidelity of marine associations." 

A comprehensive review was published and led by Dr. Mark McCauley, a Postdoctoral Researcher, during his time at Whitney Laboratory working with Whitney's Associate Professor of Chemistry, Dr. Sandra Loesgen, and co-authors. The project unified all available cnidarian microbiome data from 186 studies into a single analysis pipeline creating a freely available global database. 

Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, covering less than 1% of the ocean floor but supporting an estimated 25% of all known marine species. Coral reefs contribute $2.7 billion to Florida's coastal economy. 

Microorganisms play essential roles in cnidarians' health and resilience, including reef-forming corals. Despite the importance of coral reefs and their declining state in an era of climate change, scientists have a limited understanding of how coral microbiomes affect the health of reef ecosystems globally. 

Supported by the National Science Foundation, the database now forms a framework for understanding factors governing cnidarian microbiomes and health, creating a baseline for assessing stressful events like coral bleaching. 

"With this database, we can provide a large amount of scientific data in one accessible location to ultimately help support ongoing and future preservation efforts of coral reef ecosystems," said Dr. Loesgen. 

The review analyzed approximately 6.5 billion sequence reads from marine microbiomes, giving unprecedented insights into cnidarian microbial composition, richness, and diversity. This microbiome's structure is primarily influenced by host phylogeny, sampling depth, and ocean body. 

They uncovered an incredible diversity of 86 archaeal and bacterial phyla associated with Cnidaria, and highlighted key bacteria found between sub-phylum, depth, and microhabitat. 

Cnidarian Microbiome Metadata Database

Nature Communications Paper

Image: Open polyps of the mesophotic soft coral Swiftia exserta held in aquaria at the USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center, Gainesville, FL, USA. Photo courtesy of Jayci Grosso, and edited by Mark McCauley, contractors to the USGS. Photo is in the public domain.