Coral Responding to Radiation

Jensen Price
February 12, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: The United States detonated 23 nuclear devices in Bikini Atoll between 1946 and 1958. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested 23 nuclear devices on Bikini Atoll (see Fig. 1). The American government evacuated the residents and promised to return them to the island after the tests were complete. [1] This promise was never held up as Bikini atoll became uninhabitable after the detonations. To this day, Bikini atoll is uninhabitable due to the contaminated water and plants on the island. The only people on the island are 4 to 6 custodians that maintain the island, but they survive off of imported water and food. [2] The island seems to be completely contaminated and the thought of a flourishing ecosystem anywhere near the island is quite extraordinary, but a recent visit by marine biologists has shown that coral, over many years, has adapted to the constant radiation and grown to a healthy state.

Coral's Response

Stephen Palumbi is a the director of Stanfords Hopkins Marine Station and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and he visited Bikini atoll last year and his findings were fascinating. Contrary to expectations, the lagoon was full of fish, sharks and most interesting coral. [2] The coral is the most interesting aspect of this because the other animals could be young and mobile whereas the coral was very large and obviously grew over a long period of time. Some estimates dated the corals origins beginning from around 10 years after the initial explosions. This means that the coral would have to overcome extreme nuclear radiation to grow and prosper which elicits a hypothesis that the coral was able to adapt to the nuclear radiation in order to grow. [2] Palumbi is responsible for similar experiment around Samoa where two separate samples of coral were taken, one from an area full of nuclear runoff and another from a more average pH area. In testing about the response to warmer water the nuclear waste coral reacted very normal whereas the normal sample was negatively effected. Although Palumbi is still working toward the reasoning behind the coral in Bikini atoll, his similar results in past research projects present a case for coral adaption which would be very important. [3]


This research is extremely important because most animals and humans that are exposed to nuclear radiation develop DNA-mutation. This DNA-mutation can take form in many ways, but very commonly it is cancer. [2] Understanding what allows coral to avoid this mutation that is so common among other organisms could provide assistance in creating medications or treatments for cancer or other mutations. In other words, coral has avoided something that has killed many humans and animals and figuring out how coral has survived this may help us survive it as well.

© Jensen Price. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M. Gutwald, "Marshall Islands Nuclear Testing and Health Affects" Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017

[2] S. Scott, "What Bikini Atoll Looks Like Today," Stanford Magazine, 20 Nov 17.

[3] A. Mascarelli, "Designer Reefs," Nature 508, 444 (2014).