SMART PATCHES to nurse Coral!

Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in collaboration with Milano Bicocca University has developed a treatment based on smart patches capable of healing coral that have been damaged by human activity

Treatment of Coral Wounds by Combining an Antiseptic Bilayer Film and an Injectable Antioxidant Biopolymer

Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in collaboration with Milano Bicocca University has developed a treatment based on smart patches capable of healing coral that have been damaged by human activity

The patch, tested in the lab and in the Maldives sea, works locally and in a controlled manner, without damaging the surrounding organisms and environment

Genoa, Milan2020 – Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in collaboration with MaRHE Center (Marine Research and High Education Center in Maldives) at Milano Bicocca University has recently published a study on the development and application of smart patches on Scientific Reports, a Nature international journal. These patches are capable of healing coral from bacterial, viral, or fungal infections caused by pollution, climate change and human activities.

The coral reefs represent a vital habitat for the marine ecosystem, and the destruction of these environments, due to pollution, climate change or other human activities, would bring serious consequences worldwide. These past 50 years, we have witnessed a 50 % reduction of this ecosystem with diseases caused by pathogenic microorganisms which are one of the causes of this decline. There are over 40 possible diseases to cause these animals’ death and today there are no effective curative measures to prevent or cure them, putting in serious danger the integrity of these habitats and the exceptional biodiversity associated with them.

To conduct this study was used the coral species Acropora muricatea, a dominant builder corals of Indo-Pacific tropical seas, and included by IUNC (International Union for Nature Conservation) among the endangered species. This species, as well as all other corals can be damaged following natural or man-made stress, increasing the risk of being directly in contact with dangerous microorganisms like bacteria, protozoans, fungus and viruses responsible for the development of specific diseases potentially fatal.

Researchers have developed a treatment with a completely biocompatible and biodegradable smart patches to be used on the corals’ “wounds”, able to release active substances (such as antibiotics and antioxidants) that would cure the coral. The treatment consists of applying a first patch releasing the substances directly into the coral wound avoiding them to be lost in the environment, and then sealing the damaged part with a second patch so that the entrance of other possible pathogens would be blocked.

“This work represents an absolute news in the study and treatment of corals diseases. In order to limit the impact of these diseases, the most used technique today is the total or partial removal of the colony, consequently causing a further damage to the coral communities. Thanks to this study we could treat the diseased coral directly in-situ and therefore making possible a more effective conservation of one of the most wonderful natural ecosystems of our planet”, says Simone Montano, researcher at the Department of Environmental and Earth Sciences (DISAT) and at Center MaRHE of Milano Bicocca University.

The smart patch, a project of the Smart Materials team of IIT and coming from technologies that were first developed to cure wounds in the hospital field, turned out to be an effective method both on a medium-small scale, in the aquarium, and potentially also on a large scale, in the natural environment. The therapeutic effect of the patch has been tested for ten days in the lab environment and, later on, in the sea, for a period of four months.

“The treatment will enable us to load into the first patch specific substances depending on the type of infection, from anti-bacterial to anti-protozoal and anti-fungal, so that we can create a specific treatment for the precise coral infections” says Marco Contardi, researcher at Smart Materials team in IIT and first author of the study.

The results of this study suggest, for the first time, a technique for the cure and recovery of delicate organisms like corals, but this technology can also be used in many other marine species damaged by human activities. The next steps for the research team will focus on the application methods of the smart patches in nature and on a large scale, while in the short run this therapeutic approach could already be used in the aquariology field.

Supplementary material:
Scientifics Report