Coral Mysteries Decoded with Anemones Corals, though seemingly inanimate, are crucial organisms responsible for crafting vibrant and intricate reefs through biomineralization. Despite their significance, the specific processes behind coral biomineralization have remained enigmatic. That was until marine biologist Federica Scucchia from the University of Florida and her team observed anemones—typically non-mineralizing organisms—miraculously manifesting coral-like properties.
A Breakthrough Glimpse into Coral Behavior In a groundbreaking study published in bioRxiv, the researchers demonstrated that by genetically engineering anemones, they could replicate some aspects of coral biomineralization. Given their relative ease of cultivation in the lab compared to corals, anemones present a promising avenue for further research on reef ecosystems and the impacts of global climate change.
Understanding the Intricacies of Biomineralization Corals possess the incredible ability to extract calcium and carbonate ions from seawater, which they then mold into reef-building minerals. Scientists have recognized a myriad of genes linked to this intricate procedure. However, corals’ sensitivity and intricate requirements for lab breeding have thwarted detailed exploration—until the humble anemone stepped into the limelight.
Why Anemones Are the Ideal Candidate Easy to breed and genetically modify, anemones offer an accessible model for genetic research, previously only available in organisms like mice. Mark Martindale, a UF developmental biologist, who once studied the starlet sea anemone, pondered the potential of engineering anemones to mimic corals.
The primary difference at the genetic level between anemones and corals lies in certain proteins crucial for ion accumulation. Martindale’s team took a leap of faith by introducing the gene for one such protein, SpCARP1, into anemone embryos. Their success was marked by fluorescence, indicating the anemone’s newfound ability to produce the protein and potentially concentrate calcium.
Implications for Climate Change and Coral Resilience Hollie Putnam, a molecular ecophysiologist from the University of Rhode Island, hailed the study’s findings as monumental. By leveraging genetically engineered anemones, researchers can gain insights into the gene variations that might bolster coral resilience against climate-induced threats.
However, some experts, like Pupa Gilbert from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, urge caution. While acknowledging the study’s merits, she advocates for a direct focus on corals to discern the effects of gene manipulation on mineralization.
The Path Forward The primary objective for Scucchia, Martindale, and their peers is to progressively introduce coral proteins into anemones. Their goal? To enable these organisms to craft calcium carbonate crystals and, perhaps, even emulate the mineral structures of other species. Brent Foster, a lab technician working alongside Martindale, summarized their ambition: “We’re continuously pushing boundaries to discern what’s truly achievable.”