Whether coral skeleton crystals grow by attachment of ions from solution or particles from tissue determines (i) corals’ growth rate, (ii) how they survive acidifying oceans, and (iii) the isotopes in the crystals used for reconstructing ancient temperatures. Our data show that two amorphous precursors exist, one hydrated and one dehydrated amorphous calcium carbonate; that these are formed in the tissue as ∼400-nm particles; and that they attach to the surface of coral skeletons, remain amorphous for hours, and finally crystallize into aragonite. Since these particles are formed inside tissue, coral skeleton growth may be less susceptible to ocean acidification than previously assumed. Coral bleaching and postmortem dissolution of the skeleton will occur, but a calcification crisis may not.
Do corals form their skeletons by precipitation from solution or by attachment of amorphous precursor particles as observed in other minerals and biominerals? The classical model assumes precipitation in contrast with observed “vital effects,” that is, deviations from elemental and isotopic compositions at thermodynamic equilibrium. Here, we show direct spectromicroscopy evidence in Stylophora pistillata corals that two amorphous precursors exist, one hydrated and one anhydrous amorphous calcium carbonate (ACC); that these are formed in the tissue as 400-nm particles; and that they attach to the surface of coral skeletons, remain amorphous for hours, and finally, crystallize into aragonite (CaCO3). We show in both coral and synthetic aragonite spherulites that crystal growth by attachment of ACC particles is more than 100 times faster than ion-by-ion growth from solution. Fast growth provides a distinct physiological advantage to corals in the rigors of the reef, a crowded and fiercely competitive ecosystem. Corals are affected by warming-induced bleaching and postmortem dissolution, but the finding here that ACC particles are formed inside tissue may make coral skeleton formation less susceptible to ocean acidification than previously assumed. If this is how other corals form their skeletons, perhaps this is how a few corals survived past CO2 increases, such as the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum that occurred 56 Mya.
Mass T., Giuffre A. J., Sun C.-Y., Stifler C. A., Frazier M. J., Nedera M., Tamura N., Stan C. V., Marcus M. A. & Gilbert P. U. P. A., in press. Amorphous calcium carbonate particles form coral skeletons. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Article (subscription required).