Skip to main content
Move the World.
Researchers Found a Species of Stony Coral Ready to Withstand Climate Change

Five hundred meters off Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, along the back-reef lagoon of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, there is a landscape marked by eroded limestone towers, sinkholes, and unique deep-sea groundwater springs.

The springs, called “ojos,” discharge acidic water, which rises in plumes from the seafloor. Here, researchers from the University of California Santa Cruz have found unique corals that thrives in future-like conditions expected because of climate change.

Reef diving off of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. "If you want to see if (corals) have a chance to adapt or live in the future, then you need to do the study in the natural environment, where they're exposed to all of the other organisms and diseases, and so on," Adina Paytan, a marine biologist studying coral species, says. Photo by Mal B/Flickr

Reef diving off of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. "If you want to see if (corals) have a chance to adapt or live in the future, then you need to do the study in the natural environment, where they're exposed to all of the other organisms and diseases, and so on," Adina Paytan, a marine biologist studying coral species, says. Photo by Mal B/Flickr

The ocean, it turns out, is not the “carbon sink” it was once thought to be. As the seawater absorbs excess carbon from the air, it changes the ocean's chemistry, becoming more acidic.

When marine biologist Adina Paytan was studying groundwater pollution in Mexico, ocean acidification was making headlines. The ocean, it turns out, is not the “carbon sink” it was once thought to be. As the seawater absorbs excess carbon from the air, it changes the ocean's chemistry, becoming more acidic. The impact is far-reaching, especially for shallow-water habitats like coral reefs. It has sparked new efforts for coral reef restoration.

As Paytan dove through the waters of Puerto Morelos, off Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, she tried to imagine what the reefs might be like for future generations. Coral reefs are more than a pretty view: they provide a food source for local communities, support the tourism industry, act as a buffer against storm surges, and offer a home to a wide variety of marine life. Coral biologist Hollie Putnam, assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island, describes coral reefs as “a meta-organism ... which can build a structure that's so big it creates an ecosystem that can be seen from space.”

After a record-breaking heatwave in 2016, a third of the Great Barrier Reef experienced a massive die-off. The following year, it faced a bleaching event, which can lead to coral death, culminating in the loss of half the world's largest reef system.

Coral reefs are “a meta-organism ... so big it creates an ecosystem that can be seen from space.”

Hollie PutnamCoral biologist and assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island

But time is running out for coral reefs just about everywhere. The primary threats to corals are warming and ocean acidification. At current trends, researchers estimate that by 2050, more than 90% of the world’s coral reefs will be massively degraded. Now, conservation researchers race to develop strategies for coral reef restoration and preservation.

Enter the humble stony coral — a supercoral in disguise.

Corals in the Wild: Can They Adapt to Climate Change?

About 500 meters from the coast, Paytan swam by clusters of stony corals. She saw three coral types: mustard coral, hump coral, and round starlet corals thriving in the acidic conditions near the submarine springs. She immediately saw the opportunity to study acidification in the field.

Hump Coral and Staghorn Coral in Lipe, Thailand. Coral reefs are more than a pretty view: they provide a food source for local communities, support the tourism industry, act as a buffer against storm surges, and offer a home to a wide variety of marine life. Photo by Waranya Sawasdee/Shutterstock.

Hump Coral and Staghorn Coral in Lipe, Thailand. Coral reefs are more than a pretty view: they provide a food source for local communities, support the tourism industry, act as a buffer against storm surges, and offer a home to a wide variety of marine life. Photo by Waranya Sawasdee/Shutterstock.

Scientists conducted most early ocean acidification studies in laboratory aquariums, where they could manipulate water conditions. Now researchers prefer to use real-world locations that are analogs of what’s expected when climate change takes a deeper hold.

Researchers estimate that by 2050, more than 90% of the world’s coral reefs will be massively degraded.

"If you want to see if (corals) have a chance to adapt or live in the future, then you need to do the study in the natural environment, where they're exposed to all of the other organisms and diseases, and so on," Paytan says.

In Puerto Morelos, as rainwater passes through the soil, it absorbs carbon dioxide and increases in acidity before draining into the submarine springs. Paytan describes the plumes of acidic water that billow out of the springs as "more acidic than what we expect with ocean acidification." And growing right alongside the acidic plumes are beautiful corals.

In a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society, Paytan and her team transplanted corals between the springs and nearby reefs that were similar but did not have elevated acidity. She also brought in stony coral species that were foreign to that region. It turns out, this coral is resistant to the acidic conditions of a future where climate change wreaks havoc.

The stony coral is resistant to the acidic conditions of a future where climate change wreaks havoc.

The Acid-Resistant Corals’ Secret Weapon

Paytan found that the relocated corals had a 70% survival rate — higher than she expected. When she took a closer look at their genetics, she expected to see a difference in the genes that control calcification, the process where corals build their rocky skeleton.

However, the important difference turned out to be in the genes that regulate metabolism. Rather than changing their calcification mechanism, the stony coral were changing their metabolism to be able to calcify despite the increased acidity.

Putnam, who did not participate in this study, says research like Paytan's is better than lab experiments. "The only thing that would make it even a better study is if we had a time machine and could go into the future and study it," Putnam says.

"The only thing that would make (this research better) is if we had a time machine and could go into the future and study it."

Holli Putnam, assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island.

The acid-resistant stony corals aren’t perfect: with a compromised metabolism and weaker skeletons, they might not be able to overcome threats like a virus or storm surges. But Paytan sees a solution.

"Protect corals that can adapt and acclimatize from things we can control, like pollution, fishing, or invasive species," Paytan urges. "It's harder to strip CO2 from the atmosphere than to have laws that prevent sewage from flowing into the coast."

Through selective breeding, scientists could cultivate adaptable supercorals that can withstand ocean acidification.

Putnam adds that if we can’t protect them all, then protecting more resilient corals could keep the reefs around longer. "This study gives us a better handle on who's more robust and who's more sensitive under potential future conditions, so that we can start thinking about what reefs of the future might look like and whether we're going to protect certain areas."

Paytan also sees an opportunity for creating a generation of corals that can withstand ocean acidification. Through selective breeding, scientists could cultivate adaptable corals, creating burlier species. Paytan calls it "assisted evolution."

"We're not really changing their genes, but we're helping them do what would take longer in terms of evolution," she says. She hopes her work will lead to targeted protection for sensitive areas and building resilient reefs, ready to withstand a harsh future.

Let's Connect

Up Next

Seachange
Coral Reefs Are Dying, but Here’s Why There’s Still Hope
How to Save the Coral Reefs
Watch Now
Seachange
Coral Reefs Are Dying, but Here’s Why There’s Still Hope
Coral reefs are the foundation of ocean life, and yet 50% of them have been lost. Here’s why coral reefs are dying and what one group is doing to stop it.
Watch Now

In the face of a changing climate, coral reefs are dying all over the world. Coral reefs make up the foundation of ocean life, and yet 50% of them have been lost in the last three decades. Are coral reefs in danger of disappearing forever? A group of innovative researchers and divers is racing against the clock to save them.

Sustainability
These Scientists Extract Plastic From Bacteria
These Scientists Extract Plastic From Bacteria
Sustainability
These Scientists Extract Plastic From Bacteria
By 2050, there may be more plastic by weight in the ocean than there are fish. Canadian innovator Luna Yu hopes to change this by turning waste into biodegradable plastics.

By 2050, there may be more plastic by weight in the ocean than there are fish. To add to that, 1.3 billion tons of the food produced each year globally is wasted or lost. Canadian innovator Luna Yu hopes to transform these problems by turning waste into biodegradable plastics.

Innovation
The Edible Six Pack Ring That's Saving Marine Animals
The Edible Six Pack Ring That's Saving Marine Animals
Watch Now
Innovation
The Edible Six Pack Ring That's Saving Marine Animals
18 billion pounds of plastic are dumped in the ocean every year. This microbrewery created biodegradable six pack rings to help stem the tide.
Watch Now

Saltwater Brewery was a regular microbrewery that made great craft beer - packaged with the usual plastic six pack rings. As fishermen who saw firsthand the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean, though, they felt they needed to make a change to help marine animals. They came up with the idea to create edible six pack rings made of biodegradable materials left over from the brewing process. Now, they’ve created a new...

Innovation
Hacking Surfboard Fins to Fight Climate Change
Hacking Surfboard Fins to Fight Climate Change
Watch Now
Innovation
Hacking Surfboard Fins to Fight Climate Change
How can a surfboard modification help save the oceans?
Watch Now

He doesn’t surf, he doesn’t code, but he’s hacking surfboard fins to combat climate change and it’s working. Meet Andy Stern, citizen scientist and founder of Smartfin. He's brought together surfers and oceanographers to create a smart surfboard fin that's collecting vital data to track and fight climate change. As far as oceans go, the environmental crisis doesn't just affect the icebergs - it affects all of us. Surfers...

Growing Food with Seawater
Growing Food with Seawater
Watch Now
Growing Food with Seawater
This designer invented a greenhouse that lets you grow food with seawater.
Watch Now

Water is in short supply in much of the world — but what if we use seawater? It’s been a dream for years, but now technology is making it possible. This new seawater greenhouse uses a clever cardboard design to distill fresh water from salt water cheaply and efficiently. It’s helping grow crops in Somaliland, and could help stop the water crisis in Africa and other parts of the world that are susceptible to drought. The...

Superhuman
Advanced Prosthetics Are Not Only Powerful, They’re Beautiful
Advanced Prosthetics Are Not Only Powerful, They’re Beautiful
Superhuman
Advanced Prosthetics Are Not Only Powerful, They’re Beautiful
"There's a deep, deep relationship between the functionality of the device and a person's identity of what their body is."

Before he was director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, Rory Cooper was customizing his own wheelchairs for racing. His racer was lighter than traditional chairs, optimized for racing on the road, but many of its modifications have since become commonplace in wheelchairs designed for everyday use. Cooper's chair demonstrated the importance of performance and functionality, ensuring that the user's quality of...

On The Fringe
Growing Human Organs in Pigs
Growing Human Organs in Pigs
Watch Now
On The Fringe
Growing Human Organs in Pigs
Twenty people die every day in the U.S. waiting for an organ transplant. There aren’t enough organs for the 100,000...
Watch Now

Twenty people die every day in the U.S. waiting for an organ transplant. There aren’t enough organs for the 100,000 people waiting for one. And there likely never will be… unless we can find a better way to source them. Enter: the pigs. A team of scientists has figured out how to grow human organs in pigs. It might make you feel weird. But it also might save countless lives.

The App That Sniffs Out Censorship
The App That Sniffs Out Censorship
The App That Sniffs Out Censorship
Created by the Tor Project, the app gives internet users a new way to monitor and report online censorship around...
By Michael O'Shea

Created by the Tor Project, the app gives internet users a new way to monitor and report online censorship around the world.