Human-Assisted Evolution to Save Coral Reefs?

As the oceans warm, the world’s coral reefs are bleaching and dying and scientists are rushing to try to save them.

What if we could make coral reefs ultra-strong to withstand ocean acidification?

Call it "human-assisted evolution," says Dr. Ruth Gates at the University of Hawaii’s Institute of Marine Biology. The idea is to find super-strong reefs that are still healthy today and cross-breed them with suffering reefs to help them withstand acidifying waters from climate change.

In the lab, Gates and her team expose coral specimens to climate change stress – they increase the temperature and acid levels to see how they react. When they find specimens that remain healthy despite these changes, they breed them to create strong offspring.

They can then be interbred with existing, suffering reefs or create entirely new reefs in areas that need them. To protect a shoreline from storm surges, for example, she proposes planting super-reefs on top of cement structures in the ocean.

Gates is optimistic that this can work.

Corals spawning during the "Greatest Sex Show on Earth" at  Australia’s Great Barrier Reef:

Coral Reef spawning

Coral is actually fairly adaptive over time, but climate change is advancing too rapidly for most to keep up. They can survive prolonged heat, but with the oceans absorbing much of the world’s carbon emissions, much higher acid levels are reducing their ability to adapt.  

Some reefs thrive in very warm water, such as off the coast of  American Samoa.

While some fear Gates is creating genetically modified (GMO) reefs, she is not playing with the DNA, she says.

Other really interesting methods we’ve written about to save coral reefs: 

Besides being among the world’s most biodiverse habitats – home to some 7,000 species – reefs play a critical role in protecting humans from rising sea levels and storms. Reefs  absorb the energy from waves, the best and cheapest way to  protect shorelines. 

Coral reefs are the first world ecosystem to reach a tipping point, says the IPCC in its most recent climate change report.    

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