Plastic reefs could offer a buffer to climate change and protect marine life from rising acid levels

Photo credit: Chiara Lombardi (ENEA)

Putting plastic into the sea may seem a strange way to address climate change, but for one research team it could offer the chance to preserve marine life.

Experts have created a series of artificial reefs in the Mediterranean Sea that they hope will help to protect the underwater environment from further destruction. Researchers hope that synthetic coralline algae reefs will offer protection against ocean acidification, as well as providing a framework for natural reefs to grow on. They have only been in place for a month, but there are already positive signs that the project is working.

Dr Federica Ragazzola, a marine biologist at the University of Portsmouth, joined forces with an Italian government sponsored research and development agency for the project.

Coralline algae performs a similar ecological function to its more widely publicised namesake, corals, in the Mediterranean. They form reefs from calcium carbonate, the main chemical in chalk and antacid tablets, which provide shelter to a diverse range of marine life. But, like corals, they are also vulnerable to erosion from increasing levels of acidity.

The Italian team created 90 man-made mini reefs from a rubbery material material, called silicon elastomer, which mimics the way natural coralline algae moves. Each artificial coral is just 10 centimetres (four inches) in diameter and each of the fronds was 3D printed separately before being assembled. Clusters containing 20 of the synthetic structures are now anchored into clear resins.

A location in the Gulf of La Spezia in north-west Italy, close to existing coralline algae reefs, was chosen for the experiment according to reports in New Scientist.

Speaking to the website, Dr Ragazzola, from the university, said: ‘Coralline algae are particularly ecologically important in shallow, temperate regions. ‘The material was chosen to match the property of the algae and, more importantly, is non-toxic to the marine environment.

‘After a year, you should start to see some of the species, crustaceans and worms as well as microorganisms invisible to the naked eye, establishing on the mimics, as well as the start of the covering of coralline algae.

‘Coralline algae bioconstructions belong to these groups of organism that may play an important role in buffering the pH decrease, thus creating a microenvironment that may help some species to resist future climate changes.’

The artificial reefs will now be monitored to establish if they can play host to a variety of life similar to the real thing.

Coralline algae reefs are home to numerous small invertebrates, like crustaceans, mussels and worms, as well as bacteria and microalgae.

And after just one month in place there are already signs of biofilms, thin layers of chemical and biological precursors to more complex life.

In just under a year, the team will take some of the artificial reefs and their inhabitants into the lab.

They will to check them for signs of damage after exposing them to the climate altered conditions predicted for the year 2100 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This will establish how coralline algae reefs might act as a buffer against climate change.



Tim Collins, The Daily Mail Online, 13 June 2017. Article.

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