Unlocking the genetic secrets of corals.


#9 coral genomes

Corals in the Red Sea naturally survive at higher temperatures than those same coral species on the Great Barrier Reef. Why? The secret could be in their genes.

Sea-quence is a world-first project to unlock the genetic secrets of corals in the Great Barrier Reef.

The information revealed from sequencing the genomes of 9 reef-building corals, together with their zooxanthellae and associated microbes (bacteria and viruses), is bridging a vast gap in current knowledge. It will fast track answers to critical questions such as: are corals able to adapt to changing environments; how quickly can they adapt; and what can be done to help them adapt? Access to this important data is freely available through the Reef Genomics open access database

#Project discoveries

  • A world first was achieved - sequencing an entire coral genome including the coral animal and its associated symbiotic organisms
  • The genomes of two different species of coral are 100 times more genetically different than humans are from chimpanzees
  • An entirely new species of coral is likely to be identified due to genetic differences discovered throughout the process
  • A single coral's genetic data would fill 30,000 volumes of War and Peace
  • A new method of sequencing coral genomes was developed, fast tracking the whole process exponentially and setting the path for more corals around the world to also be sequenced

#What is genomics?

Genomics is the study of the DNA of an organism including all its processes, structures and functions.

Genome sequencing has been mainstreamed by medical science, however the complexity of coral reefs provides some interesting challenges.

Corals and their zooxanthellae (the organisms that give them life) and microbes are highly integrated. This provides a unique technical challenge when trying to pull them apart for analysis. 

ReFuGe 2020 researchers have developed new, highly efficient methods to separate microbes from coral tissues and developed cutting edge analytical and computational methods to separate their sequence data.

However, the most effective method for obtaining ‘clean’ coral DNA relies on using coral sperm. Corals produce very large amounts of sperm, however they do so only once a year at coral spawning. Spawning occurs at night over a four day period, making it a hectic and sleepless couple of days (and nights) in the lab. 


  • The first human genome sequence was released in 2003 (the Human Genome Project), a 13 year, USD$3 billion undertaking. Today, an entire human genome can be sequenced in days for less than $10,000.
  • The first coral genome from the Great Barrier Reef, a branching coral (Acropora millipora) from Magnetic Island, was sequenced in 2011 by researchers from James Cook University.
  • Prior to the Sea-quence project, only 2 corals (Acropora millipora and Acropora digitifera) had been sequenced globally.
  • The human genome and the coral genome both contain approximately 22,000 genes.
  • There are more than 550 species of corals (hard and soft) on the Great Barrier Reef alone.
  • It is possible for exactly the same coral species to live at both the northern and southern tips of the Great Barrier Reef – in waters that are on average 2 degrees different in temperature. Both will bleach if temperature varies from average.

#Project partners

Australian Institute of Marine Science
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
Bioplatforms Australia
James Cook University
King Abdullah University of Science & Technology
University of Queensland
Australian National University
Australian Government
Fitzgerald Family Foundation

The Sea-quence project is an initiative of the ReFuGe 2020 consortium. ReFuGe 2020 (short for Reef Future Genomics) is a collaboration between the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, Australian Institute of Marine Science, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Bioplatforms Australia, James Cook University, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, University of Queensland, and Australian National University supported by Rio Tinto, Bioplatforms Australia through NCRIS, the Fitzgerald Family Foundation and the Australian Government.