Rubber Algae Help Create Artificial Reef; Could Combat Ocean Acidification

A team of European researchers is testing whether tiny artificial algae can help protect coral reefs in the Mediterranean Sea that are threatened by ocean acidification due to climate change. 

A reef scene with coralline algae. 

A reef scene with coralline algae.  DEREK KEATS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The small plastic structures are made of a non-toxic, highly elastic rubber, and are designed to mimic natural coralline algae. Like coral, coralline algae help form reef habitats for small invertebrates. 

Coralline algae reefs play an important role in the case of ocean acidification, explained marine biologist and team member Federica Ragazzola at the U.K.’s University of Portsmouth. As waters become more acidic, coralline algae reefs made up of carbonate minerals will slowly dissolve, increasing the alkalinity of the seawater within the reef. By acting like a natural “anti-acid tablet,” the dissolving algae reefs protect the organisms living there from ocean acidification. 

The researchers cemented 90 synthetic mini-reefs into place in May in the Gulf of La Spezia in northwest Italy. Already, they say they are seeing evidence of microorganisms beginning to colonize the artificial structures. Ultimately, the reefs would be made from biodegradable plastic so that they would gradually disappear, leaving natural coralline structures in place.