By Lizzie Gemmell
Five minutes into Dr Michael Sweet’s Award Lecture at the British Science Festival and we felt a million miles from a rainy Newcastle afternoon. His talk began with a dazzling introduction into the weird and wonderful world of corals, with stunning photos of the octo-coral, the cabbage coral and even the Great British coral (a white, spindly coral found around the UK).
I was immediately hooked, who wouldn’t want to do research in purpose-built tropical island labs in the Maldives? However Dr Sweet quickly assured us it’s not just snorkelling and sunshine, the coral reefs are under attack, and his research has identified surprising new organisms involved in coral diseases.
Like other living organisms, corals suffer from infectious diseases caused by bacteria. These diseases can have devastating consequences when they spread through a reef, as we found out first-hand when the audience were asked to act as a model coral, waving our arms around like polyps until the infection spread to us (we were quickly wiped out!).
Dr Sweet then guided us through his research into the causes of coral diseases like ‘dark spot’ and ‘white plague’, and his important new discovery that most (if not all) coral infections also involve tiny one-cell organisms called ciliates. Although bacteria are the primary cause of these diseases, his research has shown for the first time that ciliates feed off infected and dying tissue and play an important role in how these diseases spread.
So what can be done to tackle coral infections? An obvious approach would be to use antibiotics; and whilst this is great for aquariums, Dr Sweet is quick to point out the dangers of releasing antibiotics into the marine environment, due to the possibility of producing super-antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Instead he was keen to promote a more probiotic approach, like applying a marine ‘Yakult’ to corals to encourage the growth of good bacteria and microbes to help defend against the invading disease-causing bacteria.
The lecture finished with a stimulating question and answer session, where the audience found out more about Dr Sweet’s marine labs (lots of fieldwork and high-tech aquariums), how ‘marine putty’ is used to rebuild lost reefs, and what he feeds his coral reef (fish food and lots of sunlight!). I certainly came out feeling educated… and wondering how I too could become a marine biologist!