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The tiny, slimy savior of global coral reefs?

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Half a billion people, probably more, rely directly on coral reef ecosystems for food. And now, at the beginning of what many call the “genomic era,” scientists are seeing the diversity of life on reefs – and biodiversity in general – in a new, utilitarian light. Each unique life form (genome) represents a novel set of solutions to life’s challenges. Now that scientists can isolate and utilize this information directly, ensuring its continued existence takes on added urgency.

'Mining' biodiversity to make money
Gregor Hodgson, executive director of the Reef Check Foundation in Pacific Palisades, Calif., points to new leukemia and pain drugs derived, respectively, from a reef-dwelling sponge and the venom of a reef-dwelling snail. (The revolution in molecular biology itself, driven by rapid ­gene-sequencing technology, is possible only because of enzymes found in microbes living in a Yellowstone hot springs.)

“This genetic resource is unsurpassed,” says Dr. Hodgson.

But by all accounts, reefs are in crisis. The Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network’s “Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2008” estimates that, since 1950, the world has lost 19 percent of its reefs. Another 15 percent may disappear within the next 10 to 20 years.

Some Caribbean islands have lost half their coral cover. In 2006, the US National Marine Fisheries Service listed two Caribbean corals – elkhorn and staghorn – as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, the first coral species to earn the designation.

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