Are infectious diseases really killing corals? Alternative interpretations of the experimental and ecological
Emerging infectious diseases are a worldwide problem and are believed to play a major role in coral reef degradation. The study of coral diseases is difficult but the use of culture-independent molecular techniques has been, and will continue to be, useful in a system where a limited number of visible signs are commonly used to define a “coral disease”. We propose that coral “diseases”, with rare exception, are opportunistic infections secondary to exposure to physiological stress (e.g. elevated temperature) that result in reduced host resistance and unchecked growth of bacteria normally benign and non-pathogenic. These bacteria are from the environment, the host, or the coral mucus layer and become opportunistic pathogens. While difficult and time consuming, we do not advocate abandoning the study of disease-causing pathogens in corals. However, these studies should include comprehensive efforts to better understand the relationship between coral diseases and environmental changes, largely anthropogenic in nature, occurring on coral reefs around the world. These environmental insults are the cause of the physiological stress that subsequently leads to coral mortality and morbidity by many mechanisms including overwhelming infections by opportunistic pathogens.