Cold-water Coral Disease By Jason Hall-Spencer & Colin Munn*

A garden of healthy, orange-coloured Eunicella verrucosa (sea fans) providing habitat for fish off Plymouth in the UK. Photographer: Sally Sharrock
It’s great that you’re having a Microbial Week on your blog; makes for a change from those pesky charismatic invertebrates hogging all the lime-light! Its good timing too, as we’ve just been able to complete some work which looks like microbes are getting the upper-hand in a battle with a very pretty species of gorgonian called Eunicella verrucosa. Off southwest Britain these pink seafans are not looking so pretty now, especially at Lundy Marine Reserve where Keith Hisock first spotted diseased gorgonians in 2002. The disease causes the outer tissues to turn grey and slough off the gorgonian skeleton, allowing a biofouling community to develop over the dying coral colony. This is the world’s first recorded outbreak of cold-water coral disease. When we first started to investigate the disease we had a hunch that fungi could be to blame, since they have caused widespread outbreaks of disease in warmer parts of the Atlantic. We couldn’t isolate any fungi but did find that Vibrio splendidus dominated the infected tissue. This wonderfully-named bacterium caused tissue necrosis when we infected seafans with it at elevated seawater temperatures, and it produced enzymes that broke down the outer tissues of the seafans. With more and more outbreaks of microbial disease being reported from the tropics it seems likely that the same will be true as we start to study coral communities in colder regions of the planet.

A dying seafan infected with the bacterium Vibrio splendidus off Plymouth in the UK. Photographer Keith Hiscock

Close up of healthy Eunicella verrucosa seafan polyps off Plymouth in the UK. Photographer Keith Hiscock

To find out more…(pdf) and The Times

*University of Plymouth, UK

Dr. M (1730 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation supported initiative. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (, a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web. His forthcoming book, Science of the South (, connects cultural icons of South such as pecan pie with the science behind them.

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