Researchers monitoring the recovery of bleached coral at Lord Howe Island Marine Park have discovered a highly fluorescent coral community that will now be used in cancer research.
University of Western Sydney scientist, Dr Anya Salih said the corals had been found in underwater reefs at the base of the sheer cliffs that rise up at the northern end of the World Heritage island.
“It’s an incredible find, at a relatively shallow depth of about 15 metres – an amazing community of highly fluorescent corals.
“The site is extraordinary. Most commonly the highly red fluorescent corals are found deeper or inside reef overhangs and even then are never so abundant. The underwater buttresses and caverns are densely inhabited by hundreds of corals, all deeply pigmented by the most intense green, blue and many with red fluorescence,” she said.
“In some corals these pigments are vibrantly strong and form beautiful patterns that can be visible in daylight and are also spectacularly revealed when illuminated by blue-light torches at night-time.
“The shimmering red, green, yellow and blue corals we found occur at a higher density and at a shallower depth, than other similar coral communities we’ve discovered elsewhere. This type of coral community has only been documented on deeper reefs in other parts of the world.”
Dr Salih found the fluorescent corals at Lord Howe Island reefs were much less bleached than the non fluorescent types inhabiting the same reefs. She said; “This lends support to the hypothesis that fluorescence can provide some level of protection to corals from temperature stresses due to climate change.”
“Earlier this year, the coral reefs of Lord Howe Island experienced a sudden mass bleaching event caused by warming of seawater it’s a sign that global warming is beginning to be a threat to coral survival even to the most southern reefs in Australia.”
Dr Salih said coral specimens from the marine park would now be tested in her lab for new types of fluorescent labels that under special laser microscopes would be used to follow individual molecules to decipher what happens inside living healthy or cancerous cells.
“We are using these pigments to light up the workings of living cells and to study what goes wrong in cancer cells.”
Dr Salih is collaborating with Professor Robert Hoffman of the University of California and CEO of AntiCancer Inc in San Diego to develop new fluorescent labels from corals. She said the aim is to show how cancer cells differ from normal cells and the effectiveness of anti cancer drugs.
“Coral fluorescence is not only proving to be incredibly important in the biology of coral reefs and their ability to survive stressful conditions but these fluorescent molecules are transforming cell science and biomedical research,” she said.
“We need to protect marine ecosystems for environmental and social reasons, but also importantly for science,” she said.