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Testing Site at Gunn Hill

Montserrat Piloting New Probiotics Treatment to Save Coral Reefs

A new Darwin Local-funded project to save the island’s coral reefs is underway.

Andrew Myers and Emmy Aston of Scuba Montserrat first discovered Stony Coral Tissue Lost Disease (SCTLD) was affecting the island’s coral reefs in January 2021. Since then, they have worked in collaboration with the Government of Montserrat, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and multiple regional working groups to address this issue.

PhD student Erin Papke of Ushijima Labs at test site

First discovered in 2014, SCTLD is a devastating and highly lethal disease that impacts over 20 species of hard corals throughout Florida and the Caribbean. While a variety of treatments have been developed, many of them use substances not found naturally in the marine environment and have the potential to create collateral issues.

Through their non-profit Island Solutions Inc, the couple have led the in-water efforts to document the disease, train the local government’s dive team on survey techniques, assisted with the treatment training programme, and implemented a treatment programme. Myers and Aston represented Montserrat at a 2022 meeting in the Cayman Islands to look at how the disease was impacting coral reefs across the UK Overseas Territories. At this meeting, they learned about a new probiotic treatment being developed by the Ushijima Lab which would treat corals with naturally occurring microorganisms.

The probiotics are beneficial bacteria strains, extracted from corals that show resistance to the disease, and which have slowed or halted the disease in laboratory tests.

Based at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington, Ushijima Lab focuses on Microbial Interactions in Marine Environments. Their research has uncovered that there are “a limited number of treatments for SCTLD (or any coral disease), which have included culling colonies to applying epoxy mixed with powdered bleach. However, the most effective treatment so far has been the application of the antibiotic amoxicillin mixed with a special paste to disease corals. Unfortunately, the amoxicillin paste can only treat active lesions and not confer lasting protection (e.g. a vaccine). Additionally, there is a risk of selecting for antibiotic-resistant microorganisms from its use in the environment, while also rendering the treatment ineffective.

“An alternative to this is the use of beneficial microorganisms, probiotics. This is based on the concept that the microorganisms that colonize healthy corals can impart some benefit to the host organism (the coral animal). Some of these beneficial microbes are thought to protect the coral from pathogenic microbes, sometimes through the production of antibacterial or antibiotic compounds. However, some corals may have a “better” microflora (the collection of microorganisms living on it) than other corals, so they could be more resistant to SCTLD than other corals. Therefore, the Ushijima lab has focused on utilizing these probiotic microorganisms (mostly bacteria) to treat and protect Caribbean corals in hopes of combating SCTLD,” the lab’s website explained.

Emmy Aston working on the testing tank.

PhD student working at Ushijima Lab, Erin Papke has been working with Myers and Aston to set up the testing facilities and prepare the corals for the treatment.

The Montserrat pilot project will create a multi-purpose testing tank to test probiotic samples from Montserrat corals on Montserrat corals and train Government of Montserrat personnel on testing and documenting procedures.

The test tank currently under construction at Gunn Hill will be the first one in the Eastern Caribbean UKOTs. The three main goals of the project are:

  1. It will be designed to support multiple marine science applications using systems developed at the Smithsonian Marine Station facility. This tank will increase Montserrat’s capability to address marine environment issues.
  2. To test probiotic treatments for effectiveness on Montserrat’s corals. A minimum of four samples will be tested in the Montserrat tank, with the goal of testing 12 probiotic treatments over the course of this project.
  3. To train members of the Government of Montserrat dive team on tank and testing systems. The project will engage the government team in all aspects of the creation, training, and implementation phases of this project.

Partner agencies at the Government of Montserrat’s Ministry of Agriculture and Department of Environment, Smithsonian Marine Station who designed and constructed the test tank and Ushijima Lab for coral health and restorative microbiology at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, who developed and supplied the probiotic treatments for the testing trial.

The pilot, funded by Darwin Plus Local to the tune of £39,127.00, is expected to run for 11 months and end March 31, 2024.

Darwin Plus Local is a new funding programme from the Darwin Initiative for community groups and individuals to gain financial support for projects under £50,000.00.

The application period is now open for new projects as noted below:

  • Darwin Plus Local Round 3 – now open – deadline 29 November 2023
  • Darwin Plus Local Round 4 – scheduled to open in April 2024 (subject to change and confirmation)