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General thinking has long held that corals, colonies made
up of tiny creatures called polyps, are passive organisms
that rely entirely on ocean currents to deliver nutrients
and sweep away wastes. Now, researchers at MIT have
found corals to be far from passive, rather quite active in
engineering their environment to sweep water into
turbulent patters enhancing their ability to exchange
nutrients and dissolved gasses with their environment.
Coral cilia, which are the small threadlike appendages
that sweep through the water, were formally thought
to only affect the water within their reach. However now,
researchers have found that the cilia sweeping motions
produce vortical swirls of water that draw nutrients inward
towards the coral while driving potentially toxic waste
products such as excess oxygen out and away from
the coral surface. Besides illuminating how coral reefs
function which could help in finding ways to slow their
decline in the face of climate change, this research
could have implications in other fields. Cilia are
ubiquitous in living organisms such as inside airways
where they sweep away contaminants, however such
internal processes are difficult to study in the laboratory
since their movements are hidden from view. Therefore
studying corals with their external cilia could provide
a useful model for understanding these other processes.