'Chlamydia' detected growing in Great Barrier Reef — is it safe to swim?

We all know chlamydia has infected koalas, but could its presence in coral also be harming the reef?

Known around the world for spreading between koalas, bacteria similar to chlamydia has been discovered infecting yet another Australian icon.

Researchers have reported some coral in the Great Barrier Reef is infested with a close relative of chlamydia-causing bacteria. “A bit of a surprise” is how lead author Dr Justin Maire characterised the find.

His University of Melbourne team is yet to determine how widespread the bacteria is or whether it’s harmful to the coral. “It’s not necessarily the downfall of the coral. There is a wide range of chlamydia in the environment that can infect anything from amoebae, to humans, to koalas,” he said. “And a lot of them are not actually pathogenic.”

Left - the chlamydia-like bacteria. Right - two women sitting off Magnetic Island over water.
The chlamydia-like bacteria was detected in coral off the Queensland coast. Source: Science Advances/Getty (File)

But while it’s possible for humans to catch one of the two strains of chlamydia that inflect koalas, Dr Maire isn’t overly concerned by the risk of the coral variety. “I would say it’s quite unlikely. It's a big jump from the marine environment to the human environment. I would say you can sleep soundly,” he said.

How can chlamydia bacteria be beneficial?

The team will now work to pinpoint the function of the bacteria and whether it harms coral. Like humans, coral is unable to synthesise its own vitamin B, and it’s believed the chlamydia could help it with this process.

Because of this, Dr Maire said it’s possible the bacteria could help it survive some impacts of climate change. “It’s a function that might be important in relation to coral bleaching,” he said.

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