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Scientists demonstrate way to 'read' chemical messages left by coral reef marine life — and it could help save future populations of coral

Scientists conducted the study by collecting and filtering ocean water from five coral reefs around the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Scientists conducted the study by collecting and filtering ocean water from five coral reefs around the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Photo Credit: iStock

Scientists have found a new way to analyze the chemical clues left behind by marine organisms living in coral reef systems, which they say could help in monitoring their health, Phys.org reported.

As the publication explained, marine organisms living in and around coral reefs extract chemical clues into seawater that can help scientists understand these ecosystems better. However, traditional methods often miss any nitrogen-, oxygen-, and sulfur-containing compounds produced by marine life, as they don't attach well to the sticky membrane materials used by scientists for collection. Plus, these compounds are found at extremely low levels in seawater.

To tackle this problem, the researchers created a new method that modified dissolved metabolites — an end product of metabolism — prior to extraction to get them into a form that was more compatible with the membrane materials. 

First, they collected and filtered ocean water from five coral reefs around the U.S. Virgin Islands. After facilitating a series of chemical reactions, they extracted modified metabolites and examined their composition and concentrations. 

Ultimately, the researchers found 23 metabolites that had never been identified near coral reefs, including amino acids and organosulfonic acids, which are involved in photosynthesis and organismal growth, said the report.

According to the researchers, the study demonstrates how to collect previously overlooked but ecologically relevant compounds. This could help scientists monitor coral reef systems for the effects of global heating, disease, and natural disturbances, they conclude.

Understanding coral reef systems is becoming increasingly important, as scientists predict that up to 90% of Earth's coral reefs are at risk of disappearing by 2050 or sooner because of an overheating planet.

According to NASA, coral reefs are important to humanity, as they act as natural barriers, protecting coastlines during storms. They also hold medicinal value — corals have been identified as an important source for drugs that could treat cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer's, bacterial infections, viruses, and other ailments, per the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense. Plus, NASA reported, coral reefs generate billions of dollars through ecotourism and fisheries.

Reef systems are also critical to a variety of wildlife that rely on them for shelter, including sponges, oysters, clams, crabs, sea stars, sea urchins, and many fish species. In addition, they are ecologically linked to seagrass, mangrove, and mudflat ecosystems, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported. 

Aside from a warming planet, reef systems face other threats like disease and even oil extraction. For instance, one of the healthiest coral reefs in the world, located in the Gulf of Mexico, is surrounded by the offshore oil and gas industry. 

The good news is that a number of conservation efforts are underway to help save coral. For instance, one zoo in the Netherlands is putting together a "Noah's Ark" of coral species with the intention of one day reintroducing them into their native habitats when conditions improve. 

Meanwhile, one group of scientists is toying with the idea of sound therapy to help coral restore itself. The method involves playing recordings of healthy coral reefs underwater — though coral doesn't have ears, it can perceive the recordings through "tiny hairs" that get moved by sound.

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