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Coral And Symbiodinium

Great Barrier Reef

In recent years, scientists have watched in dismay as large parts of Australia's Great Barrier Reef have died off.

Fortunately, they're beginning to understand the processes that make coral possible in the first place. It all starts with Symbiodinium, a microscopic algae that feeds the coral.

The relationship between these two is tight: The coral can't survive without the carbohydrates manufactured by the alga. In turn, scientists now believe the alga allows the coral to manage its energy output.

In many ways, Symbiodinium is a strange plant. For starters, it has a hundred times the DNA found in humans. And nobody knows why. But that's not all.

Symbiodinium uses sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, in a photosynthetic process unlike any other in the plant kingdom. University of Queensland professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg jokingly calls it "an alien - like no other organism on the planet."

As tight as this relationship is, it is also fragile. Too much heat or light, the coral expels the Symbiodinium. Within days the coral dies. In the chemical conversation between this exotic plant and coral reef polyps scientists hope to find a clue that might help save this important ecosystem.

Script by Dan Maxwell

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