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The University of Southampton

Scientists to explore why some corals can ‘take the heat’

Published: 13 November 2023
Diver swimming above corals
Conducting fieldwork on a coral reef. Credit: D’Angelo/Wiedenmann

New research by the University of Southampton will investigate what allows some reef corals to thrive in exceptionally warm ocean waters, while others perish.

Scientists from the University’s Coral Reef Laboratory want to identify the mechanisms that allow corals in certain regions of the planet to survive at temperatures that are much warmer than those in the creatures’ typical habitats.

It’s hoped the research could eventually help the global coral population to become more resilient to the effects of climate warming.

Associate Professor Dr Cecilia D’Angelo, the lead researcher for the project, has been awarded funding of £900,000 by the Leverhulme Trust to conduct the study.

Reefs are made up of many species of coral, each of which has a mutually beneficial, or ‘symbiotic’ relationship with algae living in their tissue. These algae supply vital nutrition to the host, but are sensitive to environmental changes, such as warming seas.

Coral reef.
Some coral reefs are tough survivors. Credit: D'Angelo/Wiedenmann

However, previous Southampton research has shown that in some reef regions corals can survive at temperatures that are much higher than normal. Corals typically live in seawater of around 28 degrees Celsius and many struggle when the temperatures exceed 30 degrees Celsius. In contrast, corals in the Persian / Arabian Gulf experience temperatures in the mid-30s almost every summer. These temperature levels would be fatal to most corals elsewhere in the world.

The team behind the study wants to know why these corals can stand the heat and investigate what is happening at a molecular level that enables this exceptional stress resistance.

Dr Cecilia D’Angelo, of the University of Southampton, comments: “We will use our insights gained during the project to develop a toolkit to pinpoint corals with a higher heat stress tolerance among diverse coral populations in reefs that usually suffer from warming waters.

Dr Cecilia D'Angelo
Dr Cecilia D'Angelo is leading the research.

“The selection of corals with a higher capacity to stand heat stress is required to develop nature-based solutions for reef conservation aimed at promoting the adaptation of reefs to the effects of climate change.”

The research will be conducted in the experimental coral aquarium of the Coral Reef Laboratory and the molecular analytical facilities of the University of Southampton. The laboratory experiments will be complemented by analyses of corals in their natural environment to demonstrate the broad applicability of the findings.

Funding for this project is from the Leverhulme Trust’s ‘Research Leadership Awards’ scheme – a highly competitive programme that opens every three years. It enables talented scholars who have launched a university career to build a team to address a distinct research problem that may significantly change the established landscape in a particular field.

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