One of the corals that form the backbone of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is to become the first complex animal to have its genes fully explored in Australia.
Plans to sequence the entire genome of Acropora millepora, a branching coral whose “staghorn” shape and beautiful colours are familiar to millions of visitors to the GBR, marks a major milestone in Australian biotechnology: it will be the first animal genome to be fully sequenced and assembled in this country.
Acropora millepora. Photo courtesy of Zoe Richards.
The mapping of the coral genome is a joint undertaking by the Australian Genome Research Facility (AGRF) and researchers in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS) based at James Cook University and the Australian National University. Experts from other Australian research institutions including The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and The University of Queensland will also be actively involved in project design, assembly and annotation of the genome.
“It’s a genuine first for Australian science. For years we have been looking on while overseas countries explored the genetic potential of our iconic native species. Now at last we have a genome project that is 100 per cent Australian,” says Professor David Miller of CoECRS and JCU, who with Dr Eldon Ball at the ANU is co-leader of the project.
The staghorn coral may look like a simple animal, but its genome is surprisingly large and complex. In fact, David says, Acropora has around 20,000 genes – about the same number as man. Why such apparently simple animals as corals should require as many genes as humans is still unclear, but it was this coral which provided the first hints of the how genetically complex “simple” animals can be.
Comparing the new coral genome venture with the human genome project shows just how far and fast genetic technology has advanced. The human genome project cost over $US 2.7 billion and was a massive international collaboration, whereas with “next-generation” sequencing technology, the costs have dropped to a fraction of the price enabling genomic studies to be more generally accessible. The Australian research will be carried out using the latest technology developed by the biotech company Illumina which is both fast and cost effective.
“Acropora millepora, is already the best-characterised coral at the molecular level and has yielded important insights into the evolution of all animals,” David explains. “Corals are among the simplest animals and may reflect the ancestral animal condition and reveal important features of genome evolution.”
As to why a coral has been chosen as the first Australian animal to be gene mapped by Australian scientists, David Miller explains: “Corals have iconic significance for Australia. We have the best-preserved coral reef system in the world and the Great Barrier Reef is a cornerstone of a $6 billion a year tourist industry. As reefs elsewhere in the world decline, this value will grow if we can keep our reefs healthy and intact.”
“This gene mapping project has both practical and scientific significance. It will help us to understand how corals build reefs – and why they fail to do so when they are under stress.
“It will enable us to predict with much greater confidence how corals are likely to respond to changes in the oceans such as global warming, acidification, the spread of coral diseases and various forms of pollution.”
While they don’t much resemble us, corals lie deep on the ancestral tree of all animals and share many of our genes, David adds. The project is expected to provide significant insights into the mechanisms that underlie the evolution of life on earth, including of the branch leading to the higher animals and humans.
Future plans for the CoECRS include mapping the genome of its symbiotic partner, the dinoflagellate Symbiodinium, and the microbes associated with coral. Symbiodinium is essential for coral growth because it carries out photosynthesis and provides the coral with carbohydrates and energy. A bacterial community is also important for the health of the coral animal. Only by understanding all partners in the association, and how they change under conditions of stress, will we be able to understand how the entire coral organism functions.
MEDIA NOTE: The Centre for Coral Reef Studies will host a major public discussion forum exploring the future of coral reefs and fish stocks at the Brisbane Convention and Entertainment Centre on Friday, August 7, at 6PM. The forum will feature some of Australia’s leading coral and fisheries scientists. Media and the public are welcome.
Professor David Miller, CoECRS and JCU, +61 7 4781 4473 or +61 0419 671 768
Dr Eldon Ball, ANU+61 2 6125 4496
Jenny Lappin, CoECRS, +61 7 4781 4222
Jim O’Brien, James Cook University Media Office, +61 7 4781 4822 or +61 0418 892449
Mark Crowe (AGRF): +61 7 3346 7908
AGRF is a node of Bioplatforms Australia Ltd, an NCRIS supported initiative.