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Research Marine Biologist James Evans and Research Microbiologist Christina Kellogg investigated the possible role of biofilms in the spread of stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD).

A brain coral infected with Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease
A brain coral infected with Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease (SCTLD) in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in April 2018.

 

 

Stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) is a highly destructive disease of corals with an unknown cause, and once infected many corals die within weeks to months. SCTLD was first observed on reefs near Miami in 2014, and has since spread to reefs throughout Florida and the wider Caribbean. In Florida, spread of the disease has been consistent with movement by natural water currents. However, in the Caribbean, outbreaks have been more sporadic and often clustered near ports, suggesting ships may also play a role in the transport of SCTLD.

 

 

a coral fragment in a bucket, half white and half darkened
Scientists at the St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center led an experiment that involved growing biofilms in controlled environments with either healthy or diseased corals to determine if ship biofilms could potentially be a viable way for the disease to spread. 

 

Biofilms are mats of microorganisms that stick together and form a layer, or “film,” on and within objects in the water—including ships—which could represent one possible mechanism for the spread of microbes (and potentially SCTLD’s unknown causative agent) from one region to another. To test this theory, the team led an experiment that involved growing biofilms in controlled environments with either healthy or diseased corals. The team sequenced DNA from these biofilms and found matches to genetic sequences previously found in corals infected with SCTLD. The scientists concluded that ship biofilms could potentially be a viable way for the disease to spread. This puts the scientific community one step closer to understanding this disease so that managers can develop strategies to prevent and further mitigate the destruction of critical coral reef habitats.

 

The resulting manuscript, titled “Biofilms as potential reservoirs of stony coral tissue loss disease,” was published in a special SCTLD-focused issue of Frontiers in Marine Science.

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