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Probiotics for Corals

Updated: Jun 13, 2022

A diet rich in probiotics could climate-proof coral reefs. New research shows that the “gut health” micro-organisms can enhance the immune systems of living coral.

Coral reef

Probiotics, that staple of yogurts and supermarket supplement aisles, are known to boost our gut health and immune system. But Raquel Peixoto, a 45-year-old Brazilian microbiologist, is the first to prove that “inoculating” corals with probiotics can make them more resilient to environmental threats.

“We have tested them for heat stress, pathogens and oil spills,” Peixoto says. In the lab, the probiotics treatment increases coral survival rates by 40 percent. “We can observe the restructuring of the microbiome of these corals and they are responding better to stress,” she reports. “This is very reassuring and motivating because we know it’s possible. Now we need to crack the code on how to do that in the field.”

And she's now working on cracking that code and, again, early tests are proving positive. That's potentially extremely good news as the stakes are enormous, and time is of the essence. “Corals are the basis of the ecosystem in the oceans,” she says.

Though they cover only 0.1 percent of the ocean floor, 34 percent of known marine species depend on coral reefs. They are nurseries for tuna, habitats for octopuses and feeding grounds for butterfly fish. In addition, corals protect coasts against waves and storm surges. “Coral reefs dissipate or minimize about 90 percent of the height and energy of waves, and they also play a role in the regulation of the local climate,” Peixoto says. “We only know the proverbial tip of the iceberg.”

She believes in this solution so fervently that she founded the Beneficial Microbes for Marine Organisms network, a global cohort of researchers pursuing the most promising methods to protect reefs. She is also the co-chair of the Coral Conservation Committee with the International Coral Reef Society. Peixoto works with scientists worldwide to identify the most vulnerable reefs and the best ways to protect them. Different reefs have different needs, and probiotic mixes will depend on the local native species and conditions.


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