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Mote Marine scientists discover a treatment for diseased corals

Scuba Divers underwater near coral
Mote Marine Laboratory
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Coral reefs worldwide are struggling to survive amid growing environmental pressures.

Developing medicines gives scientists tools to save sick corals and can help preserve threatened ecosystems.

Black band disease is an infectious illness that can kill coral tissue. It spreads quickly, especially in the warm shallow waters of the Florida Keys and Caribbean.

The disease leaves a dark band across healthy coral, eats its tissue and leaves behind bare skeleton.

Mote Marine Laboratory scientists and their partners have been developing treatments to help preserve coral reefs worldwide.

WUSF's Cathy Carter recently spoke about the work with Erinn Muller, Mote Marine's Coral Health & Disease research program manager.

Errin, tell us about your research and, ultimately, your discovery of a treatment.

We tried a total of 13 different therapies to treat this disease. One of the greatest challenges we had was actually getting a medicine to adhere to a coral, which is mucusy, in a liquid environment. But when we started working with ocean alchemists, which is this group of pharmaceutical scientists, they created an ointment that adheres to the coral mucus, the tissue. And then they also came up with this trick with us to basically impregnate a hemp rope that we could apply directly to the coral and leave in place for about seven days and then remove. Integrating that unique ointment with the active ingredients that killed the bacteria along with the rope that allowed the ointment to stay in place for about a week, allowed us to effectively treat every single coral that we tried it on.

Your research to develop medicines to treat black band disease took a couple of years. So now that you feel confident an effective treatment has been found, what is the next step?

Now, that we have tools like medicines that we can take into the ocean to fight the disease, we can integrate that into management plans with our local agencies to start deploying strike teams. So, when there's an outbreak going on, we can take a team of divers with this medicine underwater; you can treat the corals that are showing the disease signs, and then it actually reduces transmission. So, corals that are nearby to sick corals are going to stay healthy because you're preventing more of the disease agents from dispersing in the water column. And now you can go down, see that that coral is sick and apply medicine to it, and a week later, it's completely healthy. So, it's a such a huge breakthrough for us as conservationists and as coral scientists.

Diseased coral with orange '042' number tag
Mote Marine Laboratory
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Mote Marine Laboratory worked with pharmaceutical scientists to develop a medicine that tests have shown help in treating black band disease.

This Mote study is the first to use natural products as the primary active ingredient. Why was that important?

One great aspect of this medicine that allows us to have even more hope, is it doesn't rely on antibiotics. ... You can actually create antibiotic resistance. This medicine utilizes natural products that are anti-microbial in nature. And so, they're very generalized in their approach to kill the bacteria. And because of that, it's very difficult for those populations to develop resistance. There's more flexibility and less risks associated with utilizing this medicine at a large scale and even globally. Black band disease is very prevalent within Florida in the Caribbean. But it's also found in every single reef environment around the world, the Great Barrier Reef, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean. So, we are hopeful that this medicine can be transferable to these other locations and be able to be utilized as an effective treatment tool to save corals all around the world.

Well, it sounds like you folks are very hopeful about this treatment, but remind us why corals and those ecosystems are so important.

Corals are the foundation of coral reefs, and coral reefs are the most biologically diverse ecosystem in our ocean. So, they are home to about 25% of all marine life. But they also provide ecosystem services to us as humans, they do so by protecting our shorelines from hurricanes or big storms. A lot of that wave energy is dissipated when it hits the reef, and that helps reduce erosion and prevent destruction of our infrastructure that are on that nearshore environment. Coral reefs also provide resource for medicines that we can use to fight things like cancer or drug-resistant bacteria. Also, about a billion of the Earth's population rely directly on coral reefs for either their direct income or cultural practices or for their direct source of protein. So, they're a huge foundation to our economic stability. It's great to be able to provide a tool to hopefully preserve some of that ecosystem for our future.

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