Researchers have raised doubts on the coral reef's ability to adapt to climate change.
The research, led by Victoria University of Wellington, took an in-depth look at a type of micro-alga that lives among reef corals and can survive in warmer waters.
When temperatures rise - by even a few degrees - the stress can cause the corals to lose their algae which leads to the phenomenon of coral bleaching.
If the algae are lost for more than a few weeks the corals die, says Professor Simon Davy.
Researchers believe the micro-algo, symbiodinium trenchii, may take the place of more temperature-sensitive algae, but will only be a long-term solution to coral bleaching if the micro-algo can provide enough nutrition for the coral to build itself and keep growing.
Prof Davy said some coral reefs could potentially survive climate change by colonising new areas in cooler water, but corals are unable to adapt fast enough to the pace of climate change.
"There are some people looking at options to support coral reefs, such as selectively breeding more thermally tolerant corals or seeding the reefs with particular algae -- and symbiodinium trenchii had looked like it was a good candidate for this," he said.
"What we see now is that the stress and loss of nutritional benefit caused by the introduction of a new type of algae may not always make it possible for the symbiosis to persist long-term."