The Scent of Corals

A new study shows that corals can control their surroundings by producing unique molecules that can help recruit healthy microbiomes and fight parasitic microbes

Press Release

Corals’ resistance to disease is highly dependent on their ability to maintain healthy surface microbiomes, a community of microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi.

For several years, it has been shown that corals harbor unique microbes at their surfaces but the mechanisms of how this community is recruited and maintained were not known. NYU Abu Dhabi Assistant Professor of Biology Shady Amin, along with Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin from the Helmholtz Center Munich, report in their new research study that corals, though are stationary organisms, can alter their surroundings by producing unique molecules that can help recruit healthy microbiomes and fight parasitic microbes.

Much like how our health is linked to maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, corals also resist disease by maintaining a healthy surface microbiome. The paper reports for the first time that corals are surrounded by a cloud of molecules that form concentration gradients around coral colonies and help structure microbial communities, also known as surface microbiomes, residing on coral surfaces. The implications of these findings are far reaching as these microbial communities are strongly linked to whether corals around the world are healthy or are infected by disease.

What Does Unhealthy Coral Look Like?

The images below, taken by NYUAD researchers, show the difference between sick and healthy coral colonies. The top image shows the coral species acropora and platygyra infected with a white syndrome disease. The bottom image shows a healthy colony.

Using water samples from 18 coral colonies along the Abu Dhabi coast, each of which was sampled at different distances from the coral surface, the study’s researchers have discovered that acropora and platygyra corals harbor unique bacteria and molecules at their surface, distinctly different from surrounding seawater. These molecules were identified as chemo-attractants, antibacterials, or signaling molecules, suggesting they may structure coral surface-associated microbes. Their findings show that there is a distinct gradient of molecules surrounding corals, and that these molecules may help recruit beneficial bacteria and/or defend against parasitic bacteria.

Furthermore, the researchers have detected surface associated molecules characteristic of healthy or white-syndrome disease infected corals, a finding which may aid in predicting the onset of disease.



“This is the first glimpse we have of what corals do in their immediate surroundings to adapt to their environment. If we understand the types of molecules corals need to maintain a healthy surface microbiome, we may be able to predict when diseases and bleaching occur and perhaps even prevent them.”

NYU Abu Dhabi Assistant Professor of Biology Shady Amin

About NYU Abu Dhabi

NYU Abu Dhabi is the first comprehensive liberal arts and research campus in the Middle East to be operated abroad by a major American research university. NYU Abu Dhabi has integrated a highly selective undergraduate curriculum across the disciplines with a world center for advanced research and scholarship. The university enables its students in the sciences, engineering, social sciences, humanities, and arts to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world and advance cooperation and progress on humanity’s shared challenges. NYU Abu Dhabi’s high-achieving students have come from over 115 countries and speak over 115 languages. Together, NYU's campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai form the backbone of a unique global university, giving faculty and students opportunities to experience varied learning environments and immersion in other cultures at one or more of the numerous study-abroad sites NYU maintains on six continents.