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Leveraging nanotechnology to save coral reefs

2 ASU studies highlight how nanotechnology can advance research, restoration

Fish and coral pictured under water.
June 12, 2023

Think small. Really small. 

At a scale 100,000 times smaller than the width of a single blade of your hair, nanotechnology — the study and manipulation of individual atoms and molecules — has paved the way for solutions to some of the world’s most pressing biomedical, agricultural and materials science challenges. 

Now, imagine: What if we apply nano-level technology to other urgent challenges, like coral reef conservation?  

Two new papers published in Nature Nanotechnology and One Earth, led by Liza Roger, assistant professor in Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences and affiliate faculty in ASU’s School of Ocean Futures, examine the potential to leverage nanotechnology for coral reef ecosystem science. 

Coral reefs, largely unseen, harbor the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem globally and directly support more than 500 million people worldwide, yet are under continued assault from coastal and near-shore development, overfishing, pollution and climate change. 

Mounting environmental pressure on coral reefs call for a rapid push toward innovative actions.

ASU News spoke to Roger about the inception of her papers, the future of this exciting field and the challenges that will need to be overcome for its success. 

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Liza Roger

Question: What prompted you and your co-authors to write this perspective and commentary piece?

Answer: We wanted to raise awareness of all the possibilities nanotechnology holds for coral restoration and conservation. This is an opportunity to translate technology across fields toward coral reef research. My co-authors and I are not experts in all areas, so we wrote this paper to attract attention that nanotechnology has great potential to give us the answers we need at a higher resolution and cellular level to help corals withstand future change. 

We can pull technologies from other fields and adapt them to meet the specific needs of corals, but if people don't know we have this need, then we remain limited in the range of actions we can deploy. 

Q: Is using nanotechnology on coral reefs a recent development or has it been used before?

A: There have been small nano-level research experiments that involve studying the interaction between corals and mineral sunscreens. There have also been little things that have been done here and there. The Australian Institute of Marine Science developed technology similar to PCR tests for COVID-19, but adapted it for detecting the presence of crown-of-thorns starfish in seawater using environmental DNA analysis, allowing for quick identification of the starfish and their harmful impact on corals. Still, more broadly there can be many nanobiotechnology applications to coral restoration efforts and diagnostic tools. 

Q: What are some of these new opportunities?

A: There is potential to adapt existing sensor technology, such as glucose sensors used in the health field, for measuring relevant parameters in corals. It also may be possible to use nanoparticles and deliver encapsulated vaccines for coral diseases in a targeted manner, similar to how the COVID-19 vaccine is administered. 

And already, anti-fouling paints are used for the hulls of ships, but what if these paints also had antimicrobial potential? They could prevent the spread of coral diseases across regions like the Caribbean. These paints could be applied to cruise ships, piers, pontoons and individual boats to release an anti-pathogenic effect into the water.

Nanobiotechnology sounds awfully fancy, but it's a vast range of things. It's not just super-advanced gadgets, but rather it encompasses a wide range of applications and practical tools that can be used in the field.

Q: Are you pioneering nanotechnology in your own research here at ASU? 

A: I’m not an expert in nanotechnology, but I am interested in coral diseases and reactive oxygen and reactive nitrogen species. When corals are stressed, their antioxidant systems struggle to counterbalance the oxidative state, leading to bleaching. I’ve explored the development of antioxidant nanoparticles to mitigate the effects of these reactive species and reduce stress before bleaching occurs.

Ultimately, our aim is to develop a treatment that can be efficiently delivered to corals in the field at the scale of an entire reef by leveraging nanotechnology to combat coral stress and enhance their resilience.

Q: What challenges do you foresee in leveraging nanotechnology to contribute to preserving and protecting coral reefs? How do you see nanotechnology coral reef research advancing?

A: This needs to be a joint effort. Before all of this can happen, the groundwork needs to be done. If we work separately in our corners, we will never get the answers we need. 

For example, researchers working with nanotechnology can collaborate with coral restoration practitioners who have coral nurseries and expertise in replanting corals. If nanotechnology can provide solutions such as surface coatings that enhance coral growth, working together becomes crucial.

Coral reef research and restoration involve addressing multiple interconnected challenges, including coral diseases, larval settlement issues, bleaching and pollution. This needs to be a collaborative effort between NGOs, governments, for-profit organizations and scientists. Each entity needs to contribute its expertise and resources to collectively develop solutions.

Q: More broadly, for those reading, how can people who aren't experts in marine science or nanotechnology help protect coral ecosystems?

A: Not everybody is a scientist. Not everybody lives near the sea or near a coral reef or feels like their actions have an impact. But even being more conscious about waste, consumption and our individual lifestyles has an impact. 

If you add many small impacts together, you get a bigger impact. And if the little ones don't happen, the bigger effect doesn't happen either. You can, at your own level, be conscious about what you do. Even living in the desert, what you do here impacts what happens in the ocean. So, be conscious about what you're doing and how you're living. Everything helps. 

The Nature Nanotechnology paper was led by Roger and co-authored by Nastassja Lewinski of Virginia Commonwealth University, Hollie Putnam and Daniel Roxbury of the University of Rhode Island, Martin Tresguerres of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Shaochen Chen and Daniel Wangpraseurt of the University of California San Diego.

The One Earth paper was led by Roger and co-authored by Nastassja Lewinski of Virginia Commonwealth University, Hollie Putnam and Daniel Roxbury of the University of Rhode Island, Martin Tresguerres of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Daniel Wangpraseurt of the University of California San Diego.

Top image courtesy of Unsplash

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