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Aussie Corals Could Help In Fight Against Cancer

August 15, 2010

Scientists in Australia have found a cluster of dazzling shallow-water corals that could help with the production of possible cancer-fighting drugs and may help to understand global warming, a researcher frmo the University of Western Sydney said Saturday.

The fluorescent cluster of corals was found off Lord Howe Island, 400 miles east of the Australia. Some displayed rich reds that proved hard to find and are in high demand for cancer cell studies, said researcher Anya Salih.

The underwater caverns “are densely inhabited by hundreds of corals, all deeply pigmented by the most intense green, blue and many with red fluorescence,” Salih told the AFP news agency.

Salih said she had never seen such an abundance of rich red fluorescent corals, nor such an extraordinary vibrant site.

Salih said scientists are using the pigments of corals to “light up the workings of living cells and to study what goes wrong in cancer cells.”

The gene that produces a particular pigment would be attached to a molecule in both healthy and cancerous cells. Scientists would then be able to track cell growth and change using a special fluorescent-sensitive laser microscope.

Salih is working with researchers from the University of California to explore how cancer cells differ from healthy cells and how effective drugs are in fighting the cancerous cells. Salih noted that red pigments are especially important because they allow researchers to see deeper into tissues.

The corals were discovered while scientists were tracking the recovery of coral bleaching linked to the effects of global warming at Lord Howe Island. Salih said the corals are invaluable not only for cancer research, but also for understanding climate change.

The coral reefs along Lord Howe Island experienced a sudden mass bleaching earlier in the year due to warming of the seawater. “It’s a sign that global warming is beginning to be a threat to coral survival even to the most southern reefs in Australia,” she said.

The bleaching, however, did not have as big an impact on the fluorescent corals, giving researchers the “hypothesis that fluorescence can provide some level of protection to corals from temperature stresses due to climate change,” Salih said.

“Coral fluorescence is proving to be incredibly important in the biology of coral reefs and their ability to survive stressful conditions,” she added.

Image Courtesy Australian Dept. of Environment/Anya Salih And David Geny

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