Nature’s Secret Weapon Against Coral Bleaching Unveiled by Scientists

by Manuel Costa
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coral bleaching prevention

Scientists from the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) and the University of Milan-Bicocca have made a groundbreaking discovery, revealing the potential of a natural substance to safeguard coral from the damaging effects of climate change.

In a recent publication in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces, the researchers demonstrated the efficacy of curcumin, an antioxidant derived from turmeric, in mitigating coral bleaching—a phenomenon predominantly caused by climate change. Collaborating with the Genoa Aquarium in Italy, the research team, comprising scientists from IIT and the University of Milan-Bicocca, successfully developed a biodegradable biomaterial to deliver curcumin without harming the surrounding marine ecosystem. Extensive tests conducted at the Genoa Aquarium showcased significant effectiveness in preventing coral bleaching.

Understanding Coral Bleaching and Its Consequences

Coral bleaching, under severe circumstances, can result in the death of coral organisms, leading to catastrophic consequences for coral reefs. These reefs play a vital role in the global economy, safeguarding coastlines against natural disasters, and preserving marine biodiversity. Most corals maintain a symbiotic relationship with microscopic algae crucial for their survival and vibrant colors. However, rising sea and ocean temperatures, driven by climate change, can disrupt this symbiosis and trigger coral bleaching. In this state, corals lose their coloration, turning white due to the absence of algae, and face the risk of starvation.

In recent years, this condition has affected numerous coral barrier reefs worldwide, including the renowned Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Unfortunately, current methods to counteract and prevent coral bleaching lack efficiency without posing a serious threat to these habitats and their associated biodiversity.

Curcumin’s Breakthrough Potential

The IIT and University of Milan-Bicocca researchers, in collaboration with the Genoa Aquarium, have demonstrated the efficacy of curcumin in combating coral bleaching induced by climate change. This natural molecule is delivered to the coral using a controlled process through a biomaterial based on zein, a maize-derived protein. The researchers developed this system to ensure environmental safety.

During the tests conducted at the Genoa Aquarium, the researchers simulated tropical sea overheating conditions by elevating the water temperature to 33°C (91°F). In these conditions, untreated corals experienced bleaching, while curcumin-treated corals showed no signs of bleaching. This outcome highlights the effectiveness of the technique in reducing corals’ vulnerability to thermal stress. The specific coral species used in this study was Stylophora pistillata, a common type found in the tropical Indian Ocean and listed as an endangered species on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) Red List.

Patent Application and Future Research

“The technology behind this discovery is the subject of a filed patent application, and our upcoming research will focus on its real-world application on a large scale,” stated Marco Contardi, the study’s first author and a research affiliate of the Smart Materials group at IIT, as well as a researcher in the Department of Environmental and Earth Sciences at the University of Milan-Bicocca. “Additionally, we will explore the use of other naturally occurring antioxidant substances to halt the bleaching process and prevent the destruction of coral reefs.”

Simone Montano, a researcher at the University of Milan-Bicocca and deputy director of the MaRHE center (Marine Research and High Education Centre), expressed enthusiasm for this innovative approach, stating, “The use of new biodegradable and biocompatible materials capable of releasing natural substances to reduce coral bleaching is a novel development. I firmly believe that this groundbreaking approach will pave the way for strategies to restore marine ecosystems.”

Reference: “Biodegradable Zein-Based Biocomposite Films for Underwater Delivery of Curcumin Reduce Thermal Stress Effects in Corals” by Marco Contardi, Marta Fadda, Valerio Isa, Yohan D. Louis, Andrea Madaschi, Sara Vencato, Enrico Montalbetti, Laura Bertolacci, Luca Ceseracciu, Davide Seveso, Silvia Lavorano, Paolo Galli, Athanassia Athanassiou and Simone Montano, 27 June 2023, ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.
DOI: 10.1021/acsami.3c01166

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about coral bleaching prevention

What is coral bleaching and why is it a concern?

Coral bleaching is a phenomenon where corals lose their vibrant colors due to the expulsion of symbiotic algae, often caused by rising sea temperatures associated with climate change. It is a major concern because it can lead to the death of coral organisms, impacting coral reefs, which are crucial for marine biodiversity and the protection of coastlines.

How did the researchers use curcumin to prevent coral bleaching?

The researchers developed a controlled delivery system using a biomaterial based on zein, a maize-derived protein, to deliver curcumin to the coral. Curcumin, a natural antioxidant derived from turmeric, was found to be effective in reducing coral bleaching when exposed to thermal stress.

What were the results of the tests conducted at the Genoa Aquarium?

During the tests, tropical sea overheating conditions were simulated by increasing the water temperature. The untreated corals experienced bleaching, while the curcumin-treated corals showed no signs of bleaching. This suggests that curcumin can reduce the vulnerability of corals to thermal stress.

What is the significance of this research?

The research showcases a promising breakthrough in combating coral bleaching induced by climate change. By utilizing curcumin and a biodegradable biomaterial, the study offers a potential solution to protect coral reefs, which are essential for global ecosystems and the preservation of marine biodiversity.

What are the next steps for this research?

The technology used in this study is the subject of a filed patent application. The researchers aim to apply this technique on a larger scale and explore the use of other natural antioxidant substances to block the bleaching process and prevent the destruction of coral reefs.

More about coral bleaching prevention

  • ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces – The original research article published in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.
  • Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) – Official website of Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT), the institution involved in the research.
  • University of Milan-Bicocca – Official website of the University of Milan-Bicocca, where the researchers are affiliated.
  • Genoa Aquarium – Official website of the Genoa Aquarium, the institution that cooperated with the researchers in conducting the tests.
  • IUCN Red List – The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, where the coral species Stylophora pistillata is listed as endangered.

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