Inside a Manhattan lab at Cornell’s Weill Medical College, next to rooms with scientists working on biomedical research, sit large glass tanks filled with ocean water, sand, and fragments of coral reefs surrounded by native microorganisms. The environment can be controlled and measured in detail, which allows for the study of probiotics that make coral reefs more resistant to bleaching due to climate change.
Seed HealthBiotech startup, is currently working to bring the solution into the ocean. New tests at the medical school are the next step. (A key collaborator works in the medical school, which explains why a coral study takes place near medical research. In a previous study with the startup, scientists from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology tested Aquariums can be stocked with coral fragments to add beneficial bacteriaThis was done by using microbes found in healthy coral reefs. Coral survived when the water temperature rose. Another group of coral that was sprayed with a placebo didn’t fare as well, with 40% suffering from bleaching, the process in which stressed coral discharge algae, a key source of nourishment. Seed Health’s new approach to protecting reefs is the winner of the nature category in Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards.
The new study looks at how coral express immunity-related genes and whether it’s possible to increase the threshold that leads to coral bleaching. The incredibly controlled environment at the lab can simulate “virtually every wavelength of light possible to create different environments,” says Raja Dhir, cofounder and co-CEO of Seed Health. “You can even simulate moonlight in the case that their circadian rhythms might be factored in relation to time.” The temperature and pH levels can be controlled within a tenth of a degree. All data is stored in the cloud. “That ‘brain’ is measuring every single point in real time, all of the time,” Dhir says. Seed Health is funding the study as part of a multiyear initiative that also includes testing in tanks and in oceans.
Along with the current study the team will need evidence that it can successfully populate corals reefs with beneficial organisms. One way to deliver probiotics slowly to coral reefs is to use a gel material that looks similar to a nicotine patch. “A lot of these ideas, and biomimicry-inspired materials, are being evaluated right now,” says Dhir. Once they have a proven approach, they will start a pilot test in ocean. The team is searching for a solution that can prove colonization of corals and the presence key species for at most two weeks after the intervention, before it moves into the ocean.
There isn’t much time left to help coral reefs: This March, a 1,200-kilometer long stretch of Great Barrier Reef faced an unprecedented Sixth mass coral bleaching, the first to happen in a cooler “La Niña” year. The ocean is becoming hotter as a result. Corals are struggling to survive in this climate change-driven world. If the world hits 2 degrees Celsius of global warming—something that we’re on track to surpass by the middle of the century unless emissions steeply drop—virtually all coral reefs could be lost, along with the critical environment that they provide as nurseries for fish that humans rely on for food.