The Great Barrier Reef could be facing a new threat in the form of a virus which could cause fatal bleaching of coral.
Researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) have discovered three distinct viruses attacking Symbiodinium cells – the organism coral relies on for up to 90 per cent of their nutrients. When the Symbiodinium break down under stressful conditions, including elevated water temperatures, coral can bleach and die.
Australian scientists suspect a trio of viruses are infecting the Symbiodinium cells and therefore impacting the coral on the Great Barrier Reef – a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“In the cultures that we have… there seems to be this ongoing, persistent viral infection,” says Dr Karen Weynberg, a marine biologist from AIMS who led the research.
“It seems like Symbiodinium is really under attack, quite heavily, from three different types of viruses.”
Weynberg says there is a “strong possibility” the viruses could be contributing to coral bleaching.
Her findings provide new insight into the currently unclear impact of viruses on the health of coral reefs – constantly under threat from rising sea temperatures.
Weynberg will present her results this week at the 2016 Ocean Sciences Meeting in New Orleans.