Scientists track viral outbreaks in coral reefs

Mapping coral diseases is helping researchers determine the cause. Photo courtesy NOAA.
Mapping coral diseases may help devise protective strategies. Photo courtesy NOAA.

New findings come during global reef-bleaching event caused by global warming

Staff Report

Virus outbreaks may compound the stresses faced by coral reefs in the global warming era, researchers said, after observing an explosive viral outbreak in the Great Barrier Reef.

Scientists with Oregon State University studied the event and reported their findings in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, explaining how their research is important in the context of an ongoing global coral reef bleaching event.

“This is bad news,” said Rebecca Vega-Thurber, an assistant professor of microbiology in the OSU College of Science and corresponding author on the study. “This bleaching event occurred in a very short period on a pristine reef. It may recover, but incidents like this are now happening more widely all around the world. This research suggests that viral infection could be an important part of the problem that until now has been undocumented, and has received very little attention,” she said.

Coral bleaching can occur when corals are exposed to stressful environmental conditions, such as warmer water, overfishing or pollution. This can cause them to expel symbiotic algae that live in their tissues and lose their color. The coral loses its major source of food and is more susceptible to disease. In severe or prolonged cases the bleaching can be lethal to the corals.

Last year, NOAA declared that the world is experiencing its third global coral bleaching event, the last two being in 1998 and again in 2010. The current event began in the northern Pacific Ocean in 2014, moved south during 2015, and may continue into 2016, with record-high ocean temperatures across wide parts of the globe.

NOAA estimated that by the end of last year, almost 95 percent of U.S. coral reefs were exposed to ocean conditions that can cause corals to bleach. If corals die, there will be less shoreline protection from storms, and fewer habitats for fish and other marine life.

“People all over the world are concerned about long-term coral survival,” said Rebecca Vega-Thurber, an assistant professor of microbiology in the OSU College of Science and corresponding author on the study. “This research suggests that viral infection could be an important part of the problem that until now has been undocumented, and has received very little attention.”

In a natural experiment, an area of corals on the Great Barrier Reef was exposed to high levels of ultraviolet light at low tides during a period of heavy rain and high temperatures, all of which are sources of stress for the corals. The researchers documented viral loads in those corals exploding to levels 2-4 times higher than ever recorded in corals, and there was a significant bleaching event over just three days.

The viruses included retroviruses and megaviruses, and a type of herpes virus was particularly abundant. Herpes viruses are ancient and are found in a wide range of mammals, marine invertebrates, oysters, corals and other animals.

The findings, Vega-Thurber said, suggest that a range of stresses may have made the corals susceptible to viral attack, particularly high water temperatures such as those that can be caused by an El Nino event and global warming.

Viruses are abundant, normal and diverse residents of stony coral colonies, the researchers noted in their study. Viruses may become a serious threat only when their numbers reach extremely high levels, which in this case was associated with other stressful environmental conditions, scientists said.

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