The complexiest species of them all

“Who’s there?”

“Tiny jellyfish.”

“Tiny jellyfish who?”

“Tiny upside-down jellyfish full of algae eating plankton and making copies of itself.”

“Ohhhhhhh, it’s you, corals! I didn’t recognize you from the sound of how you don’t make any sound. You’re usually too busy doing weird and complicated things underwater to find me at my workplace.” But not today! I’m usually too busy knitting coral reefs out of yarn and watching football highlight videos on YouTube to see what Science publishes, um, ever, but thanks to a tip from Aaron (props, dude), I bring you today’s hot coral news: corals are complicated. No, really, it’s truer than before, and for really interesting reasons.

CoralSorta.002

As you can see from my schematic, corals are more closely related to vertebrates than you thought


Corals are kind of hard to explain to people. After wondering why they should save the coral reefs, people usually stop themselves and wonder what coral is, anyway. Then they admit to me that corals are just “the background” during their scuba dives and that they love to spearfish for grouper. The tragedy of having nothing in commons.

Corals are animals, even though they look like shrubs or rocks. They get to their resting locations by swimming (more on that tomorrow), where they continually make exact genetic copies of themselves. They hang out with those copies of themselves for tens or hundreds of years, while hosting symbiotic algae, eating plankton, making mucus, having fights, and knowing what time of day it is. If you spend long enough looking at them, you realize not only are they really pretty, they’re doing pretty awesome things and it’s too bad your underwater panic attack about your thesis project is ruining your special moment.

If you delve deeper, as Weis and colleages have, you find that corals have even more complex-iness going on. The field of coral physiology is using genomics and proteomics to explore the mechanisms underlying calcification and symbiosis; the efficiency of both processes is abrogated by the emerging threats of ocean acidification and sea temperature rise. (Y’all didn’t think I could write a whole serious sentence, did you? If you are confused, just keep reading.) Coral biologists have now uncovered genes similar to bone-development genes (a homolog of the human bone morphogen protein gene), and immune system genes (p53 and caspase genes) originally identified in vertebrates.

The authors apparently needed five frames to convey what I did in just one

The authors of the coral physiology paper apparently needed five frames to convey what I did in just one elegant schematic

Through this work an interesting result emerged: Corals turn out to have a large number of genes in common with humans, many of which are missing in the fruit fly (Drosophila: the workhorse of modern molecular genetics) and the nematode (Chaeonrhabditis elegans: you study this if you forgot about corals when you were picking your animal). This means the ancestral state for most animals is a super complex genome. Some animals just lost a lot of features as they took evolutionary roads less traveled. So score a few pH points for corals (please). Now humans look less like highly evolved uber-animals an more like mobile, slightly smarter versions of corals, the original fighting, mucus-making, skeleton-forming multitask-masters.

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3 Responses to The complexiest species of them all

  1. Dean Tanh says:

    Music started playing anytime I opened this webpage, so frustrating!

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