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How healthy bacteria could protect coral reefs from climate change

New probiotics delivered by Seed Health—a winner of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards—could help boost coral survival rates during heat waves by 40%.

How healthy bacteria could protect coral reefs from climate change
[Photos: Raquel Peixoto/courtesy Seed Health]

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. Every detail of the environment can be perfectly controlled and measured, facilitating the study of one potential solution to help coral reefs survive climate change: probiotics that make them more resilient to bleaching as the ocean heats up.

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Seed Health, a biotech startup, is now working to bring the solution to the ocean, with new tests at the medical school the next step in the process. (A key collaborator works at the medical school, which is why a coral study is happening near medical research.) In a previous study led by Dr. Raquel Peixoto, scientists from Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology tested adding beneficial bacteria to fragments of coral in aquariums, using microbes that are naturally present in healthy coral reefs. As the temperature of the water increased, the coral survived. 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, which began working on making the technology a reality last August, is the winner of the nature category of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards.

[Photo: Raquel Peixoto/courtesy Seed Health]
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 of the data is monitored 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 one part of a multi-year initiative that includes tests both in tanks and in the ocean.

Dr. Raquel Peixoto [Photo: Raquel Peixoto/courtesy Seed Health]
Along with the current study, the team will also need to show that it can successfully populate coral reefs with the beneficial organisms. One approach might involve using a gel material similar to a nicotine patch to slowly deliver the probiotics to the coral. “A lot of these ideas, and biomimicry-inspired materials, are being evaluated right now,” says Dhir. Once they have a proven approach, the team will begin a pilot test in the ocean itself. The team is looking for a solution that can demonstrate colonization of the coral and the presence of key species for at least two weeks after the intervention before it moves to the ocean.

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[Photo: Raquel Peixoto/courtesy Seed Health]
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. As climate change continues, the ocean keeps getting hotter, making it harder for coral to survive. 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.

This story has been updated to clarify when Seed Health began working on the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology project.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley

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