Feds Must Act to Protect 82 Coral Species from Extinction
In an agreement filed Sept. 27 in federal court, the U.S. government pledged to determine by April 15, 2012, whether the Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections are needed for 82 species of coral. The settlement is the result of a 2009 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity asking the federal government to list the corals as threatened or endangered. That decision is now overdue. The corals, which occur in U.S. waters ranging from Florida and Hawaii to American territories in the Caribbean and Pacific, have all declined by more than 30 percent over a 30-year period. Coral reefs around the world are facing extinction due to overfishing, pollution and the overarching threats of global warming and ocean acidification.
“Unless we protect them right now, coral reefs will be lost within decades, and our grandchildren will never see these colorful underwater forests teeming with life,” said Miyoko Sakashita, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's oceans program. “The settlement is a victory for corals because it will speed efforts to reduce threats and protect coral habitat.”
Scientists warn that by mid-century, coral reefs are likely to be the first worldwide ecosystem to collapse due to carbon dioxide pollution, which causes both global warming and ocean acidification. Warm water temperatures in 2010 marked the second-most deadly year on record for corals due to bleaching—a process by which they expel the colorful algae needed for their survival. Many corals die or succumb to disease after bleaching. An additional threat to coral reefs is ocean acidification, caused by the ocean’s absorption of CO2. Ocean acidification has already impaired the ability of some corals to grow and will soon begin to erode certain reefs.
“Today’s agreement is an important step toward legal protections for some of the most vulnerable coral reefs,” said Sakashita. “Protecting corals as endangered species will promote their conservation, but we also need decisive action to reduce global warming and ocean acidification to ensure the recovery of magnificent reefs.”
In 2006, elkhorn and staghorn corals—which occur in Florida and the Caribbean—became the first, and to date the only, corals protected under the ESA. But many other corals are also at high risk of disappearing. Protection under the ESA would open the door to greater opportunities for coral reef conservation, as activities ranging from fishing, dumping and dredging to offshore oil development—all of which hurt corals—would be subject to stricter regulation. The ESA would require federal agencies to ensure that their actions do not harm corals, which could result in agencies that are required to approve projects with significant greenhouse gas emissions to consider and minimize those projects’ impacts on vulnerable corals.
Among the corals in the agreement are:
Mountainous star coral (Montastraea faveolata)
Once considered the dominant reef building coral of the Atlantic, more than half of these corals have disappeared in just three decades. This Caribbean coral is susceptible to bleaching, ocean acidification, pollution and disease. The decline and death of this coral is outpacing its ability to grow and build new colonies.
Blue rice coral (Montipora flabellata)
Only found in Hawaii, blue rice coral is uncommon and thrives in shallow reefs pounded by waves. Although this coral is usually flat and sheetlike, on one reef in Molokai it grows branches with an opening at the tip that provides a home to small shrimp. Blue rice coral is vulnerable to bleaching, habitat degradation and disease.
Hawaiian reef coral (Montipora dilatata)
Hawaiian reef coral remains in fewer than five locations. It has the unfortunate trait of being among the first corals to bleach during increased water temperatures, and the slowest to recover. It has experienced significant climate-related population fluctuations over the last 20 years, and its small distribution makes it extremely vulnerable to extinction. Hawaiian reef coral has been considered a species of concern by the National Marine Fisheries Service since 2004.
Flowerpot coral (Alveopora allingi)
As its common name suggests, flowerpot coral resembles a bouquet of flowers. Overexploited by the aquarium trade and rapidly losing habitat, this coral is found in American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Palau and other areas of the Pacific. Flowerpot coral has the highest bleaching response of any coral genus, making it extremely vulnerable to global warming.
Acropora corals are the most abundant corals on the majority of the reefs in the Indo-Pacific. However, these corals are extremely sensitive to bleaching and disease, and they’re slow to recover. Our petition seeks to protect several Acropora corals found in Hawaii and the greater Pacific. Two Acropora species in the Caribbean—elkhorn and staghorn corals—are already protected as threatened under the ESA as a result of a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity.
For more information, click here.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 320,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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