‘Horrifying’ Research Seeks to Save Hawaii Reefs
By Daniel Grossman
At times, marine biologist Ruth Gates is appalled by the path her research has taken.
"It's horrifying," she said recently, sitting in a spartan office at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Science.
Gates, the institute's director, manages a far-reaching research program to develop novel techniques to prevent climate change from harming the world's coral. Gates is modifying these wild organisms to thrive in the warmer and more-acidic ocean of the future, rather than trying to protect them by safeguarding their habitats and controlling harvesting. In doing so, she's moving far beyond the boundaries of traditional conservation.
Gates seeks answers to how … and whether… coral reefs can be saved.Photo credit: Daniel Grossman
Gates clearly is uneasy about tinkering with nature in this way. But traditional conservation techniques, such as setting aside reserves, can't combat climate change.
"Let's face it," she said, climate change will "push species to extinction if we do nothing. I can't stand by and let my system die before my very eyes."
Coral reefs have suffered overfishing and pollution for as long as numbers of people have lived near them. Now coral also confronts a steadily rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the air, which increases the acidity and temperature of ocean water and raises sea level. It's an unprecedented combination of adverse conditions.
Concerns of Widespread and Serious Die-Offs
In the past year, the confluence of long-term warming and a strong El Niño have endangered reefs around the world. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently reported serious coral die-offs in waters near dozens of countries and archipelagos. Australian scientists have pronounced dead 35 percent of corals on the northern and central sections of the Great Barrier Reef.
Ruth Gates is creating supercharged corals to beat climate change - https://t.co/LGfuaUOoBL photos by @oceanelyse https://t.co/1bwa8Zw1x0— NS Picture Desk (@NS Picture Desk)1460733202.0
Gates' team, in collaboration with a group under Madeleine van Oppen, a senior research scientist at the Australian Tropical Marine Research Agency, is breeding more resilient coral strains. They're also testing treatments—such as short blasts of heat—that might toughen up corals and their progeny.
In 2015, the two scientists received a $4 million grant for their work from Paul G. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft. If the research turns out, whole reefs some day might be populated by organisms bred in her labs, Gates says. Radiators might even apply heat therapy to mile-long stretches of coastal waters.
Gates directs a 25-acre campus on Coconut Island, a verdant reserve, once a playground for the rich and a backdrop that appeared in opening scenes of the TV show "Gilligan's Island." In May, I took a power boat the few hundred yards from the mainland. Gates met me brandishing a key ring.
We hopped into a beat-up golf cart and soon pulled up to a dozen fiberglass tanks clustered together like hot tubs in a showroom. She walked onto a wooden deck from which researchers inspect experiments conducted inside. Seawater from offshore is heated and circulated through the tanks. Chunks of coral cut from local reefs soak inside, like pampered spa guests.
Developing Climate-Proof Corals in the Lab
Just as pigeon fanciers create superior birds for homing and tumbling, Gates hopes to develop climate-proof corals. On that day, she was testing three different experimental treatments, each replicated in four separate tanks. After three to six months of conditioning in their warm baths, the corals will grow up in nurseries nearby. Gates says she hopes some of the treated specimens will resist heat and acidity better than untreated varieties. The experiments could show which treatment works best.
Gates also seeks out naturally-hardy corals. Divers off Coconut Island search for the rugged corals of each of the five major species that grow there. Gates breeds the best corals found offshore or created by conditioning, to enhance their heat and acid tolerance. If she can create such organisms for the reefs off Coconut Island, she says, other researchers could do the same thing for threatened reefs all around the world.
But producing super coral differs from traditional breeding in at least one important regard: Coral relies intimately for its survival on a second class of organism.
Corals are soft sack-like polyps that, depending on species, either live alone or in dense colonies, some of which produce reefs cemented together with their own secretions. Vase-shaped polyps feed in part on small prey captured in stinging tentacles that ring their mouths. But the polyps can't survive solely on food they can ensnare. There aren't enough victuals in the nutrient-poor waters where they grow.
They require additional energy. Nature has supplied it by arranging a remarkable partnership between the polyps and the algae Symbiodinium, which lives inside polyp cells.
The symbiotic algae serve the polyps sugars and other nutritive compounds made by photosynthesis. The coral, in turn, offer the algae physical protection and scarce nutrients such as sulfur. The prismatic displays corals exhibit are created not by their own tissue but by Symbiodinium's photosynthetic pigments showing through coral's transparent cell walls.
But Symbiodinium depart coral cells if they get uncomfortable. When ocean water gets too hot, they flee like residents of a house on fire. Absent their symbiotic guests, coral turns bone white—giving the disorder caused by the loss of the algae its name, bleaching—and, in time, dies of starvation. NOAA reports that warm water this year has bleached coral in more reefs than in any known previous event.
Gates says corals might resist warming better if they host heat-tolerant strains of Symbiodinium. But she says the problem isn't simply identifying or creating, better algae varieties. Corals must be coaxed into cooperating because they're very choosy about partners, especially once they're full grown. Gates is seeking "entrepreneurial" corals willing to host heat-tolerant algae. Alternatively, she says that some manipulation of corals, such as "a slight temperature modification to the little beasties," might induce them to accept algae they would otherwise reject.
Exciting Some Fellow Scientists, Unsettling Others
The fictional dinosaur cloning in Jurassic Park simultaneously fascinates and horrifies visitors to the movie's research site, Isla Nublar. Similarly, coral scientists are excited and unsettled by Gates' Coconut Island research.
Robert Richmond, director of Hawaii's Kewalo Marine Laboratory and a past president of the International Society for Reef Studies, calls the Coconut Island research "innovative and important."
In a conversation by Skype, Richmond said that now that scientists have documented threats to coral, they should seek out solutions. To do otherwise, he said, would be akin to a doctor's telling a patient, "You have liver cancer or kidney cancer and saying 'Have a nice day.'" Yet he fears adverse consequences of replacing the genetically diverse coral communities with less diverse laboratory varieties.
Could the inevitable cold snap or a pathogen, wipe out reefs too specialized for heat and acid tolerance? "That's what keeps me up at night," Richmond said. (Gates responded in an e-mail that she's aware of this issue. She said that she wants to create climate-proof coral strains that also contain genetic diversity needed to resist other challenges. "We can take lessons from the past to avoid these problems—that is how science advances.")
Corals are among the most prominent species suffering widely from warming, but they are hardly the only ones. Biologist Thomas Lovejoy, a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation, said by e-mail that in coming years global warming will raise ethical and logistical challenges for conservation around the world, on land as well as in the ocean. Moving species—either naturally occurring or improved strains—into habitats where they never lived before could become an important conservation tool, he wrote, "but should be approached cautiously."
A stark delicate branching coral stands upright on a pedestal in Ruth Gates' office, like a bonsai sculpted of ivory. It's a stark reminder of the stakes in her quest.
"Can we prevent the catastrophic loss of three-quarters of the world's reefs?" she asks rhetorically. "I don't know."
Those committed to preserving the world's coral reefs—for economic reasons such as subsistence fishing, for vacation viewing or simply because these habitats are wonders of nature—eagerly await an answer.
The author's travel to Hawaii was supported by Abby Rockefeller and Lee Halprin, in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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