Science 3 min read

New Imaging Approach Allows Non-Invasive Coral Health Monitoring

A new imaging approach has enabled researchers to improve the monitoring of coral health without the need to get physical samples underwater.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

It’s no longer a secret that climate change hurts coral health. Now, researchers have developed a non-invasive imaging approach of getting insight into coral physiology to better monitor the marine invertebrates‘ health.

Reef-building corals provide a home to millions of species, but the situation is rapidly changing. The dire effect of climate change extends beyond terrestrial into the aquatic.

Ocean temperatures are rising, which then causes coral bleaching – a condition in which corals expel their life-providing algae. As you can imagine, this threatens coral health and its ability to sustain colonies.

An understanding of the mechanisms of bleaching is essential to preventing the death of coral reefs. Unfortunately, these marine species have a complex structure, which makes it challenging to image live coral tissue.

But the obstacle did not stop a research team from Northwestern Engineering from trying. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the team explained how they developed the non-invasive imaging approach to monitor corals’ physical condition.

The researchers called their approach inverse spectroscopic optical coherence tomography or ISOCT for short.

Using a Laser Scan to Monitor Coral Health

The researchers equipped ISOCT with a laser to scan living corals. Then, it measures the marine body’s optical properties at full 3D resolution.

But that wasn’t what the Northwestern Engineering team intended when they developed this non-invasive imaging technique.

In a statement co-author of the study, Vadim Backman said:

“We originally developed ISOCT to image human tissues in order to understand alterations in early carcinogenesis better. We had to adapt and enhance it for coral imaging, which produced an exciting example of cross-pollination in science and technology.”

The decision to use ISOCT for corals turned out to be a good one. Along with providing a clear image of the skeleton and tissues of different coral species, ISOCT also quantifies the chemical concentration within the coral.

These include the chlorophyll and other fluorescent pigments.

The researchers believe ISOCT could help marine biologists shed some light on how environmental stresses affect coral health. That way, they could develop an effective strategy to protect susceptible species from bleaching.

It could also provide an insight into a more effective way of harvesting solar energy.

If we could fully understand the mechanisms by which corals have been optimized via evolution to harvest light, we could develop similar strategies as the basis for solutions to harvest solar energy,” says co-first author, Graham Spicer.

Read More: Climate Change is Driving Coral Reefs Away From the Equator

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Sumbo Bello

Sumbo Bello is a creative writer who enjoys creating data-driven content for news sites. In his spare time, he plays basketball and listens to Coldplay.

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