Scientists study how coral manipulates its bacteria
In a novel study with implications for human health, James Cook University researchers are using a $300,000 grant to study how some animals can manipulate their own bacteria.
JCU’s Professor David Miller says it’s a 180-degree shift from how biology is usually approached.
“To date, animal-microbe interactions have been studied near exclusively in terms of how bacteria affect animals. We’re going to turn that on its head. We’ve discovered a new mechanism by which the coral Acropora can control its bacteria and this research will allow us to understand how that’s done.”
Professor Miller said the research was about more than just satisfying scientists’ curiosity.
“Understanding how a simple animal manipulates its microbial associates will have major implications, not only for coral disease and resilience, but also for health and disease across the animal kingdom, from corals to man.”
He said it was largely uncharted territory.
“Microbiologists have made a lot of progress in understanding the bacterial side of animal-microbe interactions, but we have almost no idea of how animals might manipulate their associated bacteria.”
Bacteria use chemical signals to communicate with each other, and this allows them to coordinate changing their activity en masse in ways that benefit them but that can be harmful to their hosts.
Professor Miller said preliminary work showed the coral Acropora not only produced anti-microbial peptides, but was also able to manipulate chemical communication between the bacteria that lived on it.
He said the scientists’ goal was to establish to what extent animals can modify or stop the signaling between the bacteria they host.
“What’s especially interesting is the potential this part of the study has for human health. Simple animals like corals have much of the genetic complexity seen in mammals and have remarkably mammal-like immune systems. So we have the opportunity to establish general principles of how the coral communicates with its bacteria that may also apply to man.”
The project will be supported under the Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant scheme, and draws on expertise from across the university, involving Dr Aurelie Moya of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and Dr David Bourne from Marine and Aquaculture Sciences and several PhD students as well as Professor Miller (Department of Molecular and Cell Biology).
Professor David Miller
Dr Aurelie Moya