From bird songs to dog barks, numerous studies have looked into the nuances of animal communications. However, very little is known about how, or even if, the world’s flora may communicate with each other. Some recent research has shed light on the ways trees use pheromones to ‘talk,’ with one even dubbing the communication network a “wood-wide-web,” but precisely if and how their undersea cousins, the coral, might communicate has more or less remained a mystery.
Now, a standout young researcher has shown how the genetic profile of corals seems to indicate that not only do these living ocean forests indeed communicate with each other, but this communication may actually be in the form of sound.
“Many organisms that live in coral reefs perceive sound and use it to find their way to the reefs,” the press release announcing the research states. “Based on this information, the researchers decided to look for the presence of genes related to the reception and/or emission of sound in the coral Cyphastrea.”
Background: Talking to Corals?
Although coral reefs make up less than 1% of the ocean floor, these unique life forms support 25% of all marine life worldwide. They also provide food and income for people in over 100 countries, making them one of Earth’s most important plant species. Unfortunately, for all of their inherent value, very little is known about how these complex living systems communicate, or if they do at all.
To better understand how such interactions might occur, a young researcher named Camila Rimoldi Ibanez, who is finishing a dual-enrollment program at South Florida State College to earn her AA college degree and her high-school diploma simultaneously, looked into the previous research in plant communication for clues.
“Land plant species have been recognized for communicating in several different ways,” Rimoldi Ibanez told The Debrief in an email. “[They do this] through ultrasonic sounds in the roots, gases through the leaves, chemical signals through the roots, and the Mycorrhizal fungus network.”
Analysis: Plant Communication Is Essential to Understanding Our Environment
Armed with a basic understanding of how plants communicate on land and operating under the watchful eye of James Hawker, Ph.D., the dean of arts and sciences at South Florida State College, Rimaldi Ibanez used a type of DNA sequencing called Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) amplification to decipher how underwater flora may pass information to one another. And what she found was not a tree-like pheromone communication network, but instead a pair of clues hinting at a potential ability to send and receive sound.
“Using PCR amplification,” the study’s release states, “the researchers found probable evidence that two of the four genes they examined may be present in coral DNA. The genes they found — TRPV and FOLH-1 — are used for sound emission or reception in sea anemones and freshwater polyps, respectively.”
Rimoldi Ibanez presented these exciting results at the April 2021 American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting during the virtual Experimental Biology (EB) 2021 section.
When asked what types of things Corals may try to say to each other if they do indeed possess even a rudimentary ability to “talk,” Rimoldi Ibanez told The Debrief, “this has yet to be researched, [but if] it is similar to plants, they most likely communicate about possible dangers, resources, or other information.”
Asked if human-made sounds in the world’s oceans may be contributing to things like coral distress or even bleaching, she noted this process is not currently understood and represents a critically needed area of future research.
“[H]opefully, more evidence can be gathered for how critical sounds are in our marine ecosystems,” she said. “I cannot say from what is known now that sound pollution may be causing coral distress or bleaching, but considering the effects seen of sound pollution in other environments, it is possible.”
Outlook: Are those Corals throwing some serious shade at us?
As to what is next in the relatively new field of plant communication, especially in underwater species, Rimoldi Ibanez told The Debrief that she sees several ways her results could aid future efforts.
“There are many ways this research could continue, [including] further identifying how coral may communicate and what/ why they are doing so. There is also the restoration part of it, in which we should try to see how this information could be beneficial to help restore corals. Lastly, as evidence is gathered, it is vital that it becomes public to society and policymakers.”
Given how impressive this level of work is for a student her age, Rimoldi Ibanez is surprisingly level-headed when discussing the importance of her findings, particularly when measured against a larger effort to protect all of the ocean’s numerous natural resources.
“Although research plays a major role,” she told The Debrief, “so does each individual. Every action that you take can positively or negatively impact the health of our oceans. So even if you do not get involved in marine research, please pick up any trash you see, use reusable items, and try to lead a sustainable lifestyle overall.”
Not surprisingly, especially when considering that her research and results are almost as impressive as her academic achievements, it may be the final piece of wisdom Rimoldi Ibanez shared in her email to The Debrief that was the most significant of all.
“Through the combination of science and society, we can accomplish anything.”
Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter: @plain_fiction
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