Study identifies live specialised immune cells in coral and starlet sea anemone

Deep Sea
Deep Sea

In a new study, scientists identified specialised immune cells that can aid in the fight against infection in the cauliflower coral and starlet sea anemone.

The findings, which were published in the journal Frontiers In Immunology, are critical for understanding how corals and other reef animals defend themselves against foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses found in and around coral reefs.

The study, titled ‘Functional Characterization of Hexacorallia Phagocytic Cells,’ was conducted by researchers from the University of Miami’s (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

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The researchers discovered that immune cells comprise approximately 3% of the total cell population and that they have at least two distinct immune cell populations that perform functions unrelated to digestion.

“These findings are significant because they demonstrate that corals possess the cellular capacity to fight infection and possess previously unknown cell types,” said Nikki Traylor-Knowles, an assistant professor of marine biology and ecology at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School and co-senior author of the study.

To identify these specialised immune cells, the researchers exposed cauliflower coral (Pocillopora damicornis) and starlet sea anemone (Nematostella vectensis) to foreign particles such as bacteria, fungal antigens, and beads in the laboratory. They then isolated distinct cell populations using a technique called fluorescence-activated cell sorting.

They discovered that specialised cells called phagocytic cells engulfed the invaders, while small, fluid-filled structures inside the cells called phagosomes worked to destroy both the invaders and the cells themselves.

Animals’ immune systems play a critical role in providing a protective defence response by recognising and eliminating foreign substances in their tissues.

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“We need a better understanding of how coral cells perform specialised functions such as infection defence as the global coral reef biomass and diversity decline dramatically as a result of climate change,” Traylor-Knowles said. “Our findings may aid in the development of diagnostic tools for determining the health of coral reefs.”

Nikki Traylor-Knowles, Grace Snyder, and Michael Connelly of the University of Michigan’s Rosenstiel School; William Browne of the University of Michigan’s Department of Biology; Shir Eliachar, Shani Talice, Orly Gershoni-Yahalom, Uzi Hadad, and Benyamin Rosental of Ben Gurion University of the Negev; and Caroline Palmer of the University of Plymouth are the study’s authors.

The study was funded in part by seed grants from the University of Miami’s Research Awards in Natural Sciences and Engineering, the National Science Foundation-US-Israel Binational Science Foundation (NSF grant: 1951826, BSF grant: 2019647), the Israel Science Foundation, the European Research Council, and the Human Frontiers Science Program.

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