Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Chemical Warfare on Coral Reefs: Suppressing a Competitor Enhances Susceptibility to a Predator

10.01.2014
Competition may have a high cost for at least one species of tropical seaweed.

Researchers examining the chemical warfare taking place on Fijian coral reefs have found that one species of seaweed increases its production of noxious anti-coral compounds when placed into contact with reef-building corals.


Photo: Hunter Hay

The marine reserve at Votua, Viti Levu, Fiji, harbors a thriving community of corals.

But as it competes chemically with the corals, the seaweed grows more slowly and becomes more attractive to herbivorous fish, which boost their consumption of the skirmishing seaweed by 80 percent.

This appears to be the first demonstration that seaweeds can boost their chemical defenses in response to competition with corals. However, determining whether such responses are common or rare awaits additional studies with a broader range of seaweeds and corals.

The research, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, was published January 8, 2014, in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“The important takeaway is that competition between corals and seaweeds can cause dramatic changes in seaweed physiology, both in terms of their growth and their defense,” said Douglas Rasher, who was a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology when the research was conducted. “These changes have potentially cascading effects throughout the rest of the reef community.”

Rasher, now a postdoctoral research associate at the Darling Marine Center at the University of Maine, conducted the research in collaboration with Mark Hay, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Biology. Hay and Rasher have used coral reefs as field laboratories, studying the chemical signaling that occurs during coral-seaweed competition, and evaluating how herbivorous fish affect the interactions – and long-term health of reefs.

“We previously found that chemical warfare is fairly common among seaweeds and corals, and that several seaweed species are particularly harmful to corals,” Rasher said. “This research explored the degree to which seaweed allelopathy – chemical warfare – is dynamic, how it changes in response to competition, and also whether competition changes the efficacy of other seaweed defenses used against herbivores.”

The findings may also challenge the popular notion that plants cannot change rapidly and strategically in response to their environments.

“We tend to think of plants as being fixed in their behavior,” said Hay. “In fact, plants such as these seaweeds assess their environment continuously, altering biochemically what they are doing as they compete with the coral. These algae somehow sense what is happening and respond accordingly. They may appear passive, but they are really the tricky chemical assassins of coral reefs.”

For this study, Rasher and Hay selected two seaweed species, one (Galaxaura filamentosa) known for its toxicity to corals, and the other (Sargassum polycystum), which does not chemically damage corals. They fragmented pieces of a common coral, Porites cylindrica, glued them into cement cones and placed them on a rack on a reef located in the shallow ocean off the Fiji Islands. The fragments were allowed to grow in the racks for two years.

At the start of the experiment, the researchers took half of the coral samples and dipped them into bleach to kill the living organisms, leaving only the calcium carbonate skeletons. The skeletons served as the control group for the experiments that followed.

The researchers collected samples from both species of seaweed, and split each sample in two. One half of each sample was assigned to a treatment group, while the other half went to the control group. The treatment group was placed into contact with living corals, while the control group was placed into contact with coral skeletons.

The seaweeds were then allowed to interact with the corals and coral skeletons for eight days. After that, a portion of each sample was removed and chemical compounds extracted from them and embedded into small gel strips that were then adhered to other living corals to assess the toxicity of the compounds. The researchers repeated the experiment, placing entire seaweeds in contact with corals to determine if the plants displayed the same effect.

“We saw that Galaxaura, the chemically rich seaweed and the species we knew was allelopathic, had up-regulated its chemistry to become more potent – nearly twice as damaging – when it was in contact with the living coral, compared to those individuals that had only been in contact with the coral skeletons,” Rasher said.

None of the extracts from the Sargassum damaged the corals.

Until this point, the seaweeds and corals had been protected from herbivorous fishes. The next step was to place seaweed samples – both those that had competed with the living coral and those that hadn’t – onto nylon ropes in a location accessible to fish. The researchers created 15 pairs of these samples and placed them at different reef locations.

“We saw that for the non-allelopathic seaweed, Sargassum, fishes didn’t differentiate – they consumed both the treatment and control seaweeds at equal rates,” Rasher said. “But given the option to choose between treatment and control Galaxaura, fishes consumed 80 percent more of the seaweed portions that had been in contact with a living coral.”

The researchers don’t know all the factors that may have made the chemically noxious seaweed more palatable to the fish. However, those seaweed portions that had been competing with coral had less effective chemical defenses against fish. When the researchers took extracts from treatment seaweed and control seaweed and applied them to a palatable seaweed species not previously used in the experiment, fish preferred the seaweed coated with extracts from the portions that had been competing with corals, indicating that competition had compromised the seaweed’s chemical defenses against herbivores.

For the future, the researchers want to study chemical defenses in other seaweeds to determine if what they’ve seen is common among tropical seaweeds that engage in chemical warfare. For now, they don’t know if the chemical defenses evolved to compete with coral or perhaps for another reason, such as fighting off harmful microbes.

The fact that corals may cause seaweeds to up-regulate their anti-coral defenses could help explain why coral reefs rarely bounce back once they begin a decline and become dominated by seaweeds. The research also demonstrates the importance of studying broad interactions among numerous species within complex communities like coral reefs.

“These kinds of interactions show a mechanism that, once the reef begins to crash, could help maintain that decline,” Hay said. “There may be insights here that we could use to better manage, and hopefully restore, some of these systems. We are also hoping that what we learn may bleed over into other systems.”

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under award (OCE-0929119), by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under award (U01-TW007401), and by the Teasley Endowment to Georgia Tech. The conclusions or recommendations contained in this news release are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official positions of the NSF or NIH.

CITATION: Douglas B. Rasher and Mark E. Hay, “Competition induces allelopathy but suppresses growth and anti-herbivore defense in a chemically rich seaweed,” (Proceedings of the Royal Society B, January 2014). http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2013.2615

Research News
Georgia Institute of Technology
177 North Avenue
Atlanta, Georgia 30332-0181

John Toon | Newswise
Further information:
http://www.gatech.edu

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht Bioinvasion on the rise
15.02.2017 | Universität Konstanz

nachricht Litter Levels in the Depths of the Arctic are On the Rise
10.02.2017 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Breakthrough with a chain of gold atoms

In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport

In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport

Im Focus: DNA repair: a new letter in the cell alphabet

Results reveal how discoveries may be hidden in scientific “blind spots”

Cells need to repair damaged DNA in our genes to prevent the development of cancer and other diseases. Our cells therefore activate and send “repair-proteins”...

Im Focus: Dresdner scientists print tomorrow’s world

The Fraunhofer IWS Dresden and Technische Universität Dresden inaugurated their jointly operated Center for Additive Manufacturing Dresden (AMCD) with a festive ceremony on February 7, 2017. Scientists from various disciplines perform research on materials, additive manufacturing processes and innovative technologies, which build up components in a layer by layer process. This technology opens up new horizons for component design and combinations of functions. For example during fabrication, electrical conductors and sensors are already able to be additively manufactured into components. They provide information about stress conditions of a product during operation.

The 3D-printing technology, or additive manufacturing as it is often called, has long made the step out of scientific research laboratories into industrial...

Im Focus: Mimicking nature's cellular architectures via 3-D printing

Research offers new level of control over the structure of 3-D printed materials

Nature does amazing things with limited design materials. Grass, for example, can support its own weight, resist strong wind loads, and recover after being...

Im Focus: Three Magnetic States for Each Hole

Nanometer-scale magnetic perforated grids could create new possibilities for computing. Together with international colleagues, scientists from the Helmholtz Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) have shown how a cobalt grid can be reliably programmed at room temperature. In addition they discovered that for every hole ("antidot") three magnetic states can be configured. The results have been published in the journal "Scientific Reports".

Physicist Dr. Rantej Bali from the HZDR, together with scientists from Singapore and Australia, designed a special grid structure in a thin layer of cobalt in...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Booth and panel discussion – The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings at the AAAS 2017 Annual Meeting

13.02.2017 | Event News

Complex Loading versus Hidden Reserves

10.02.2017 | Event News

International Conference on Crystal Growth in Freiburg

09.02.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Stingless bees have their nests protected by soldiers

24.02.2017 | Life Sciences

New risk factors for anxiety disorders

24.02.2017 | Life Sciences

MWC 2017: 5G Capital Berlin

24.02.2017 | Trade Fair News

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>