We Could Be Seeding Reefs With Hybrid Heat-Resistant Coral Within Just A Few Years

Since 2014, the world's coral have been going through the biggest bleaching event on record. The Ocean Agency/XL Catlin Seaview Survey/Richard Vever

Josh Davis 27 Dec 2017, 16:43

It’s safe to say the world’s coral reefs are experiencing one the greatest threats to their existence in recent times. In an attempt to step in, researchers are now creating hybrid coral and heat-resistant algae. If all goes well, they could potentially release them into the ocean within just a few years

The coral bleaching that has hit many reefs since 2014 has been devastating, particularly for the Great Barrier Reef. Certain northern regions of the reef saw over 90 percent of its corals bleach, and while some recovered, large swathes were left ghostly white and dead.  

Some coral are already tolerant of warm ocean temperatures that would ordinarily bleach most others, and so it it not beyond the realm of possibility that some coral could evolve this ability. But evolution is often a slow process, and one thing these reefs do not have is time. This is where marine biologists are stepping in and effectively trying to speed up evolution.

Presenting their work at a conference in Oxford, Professor Madeleine van Oppen's team from the Australian Institute of Marine Science are optimistic about creating coral hybrids that can survive higher temperatures. In fact, her team has been so successful that they are even seeking approval to plant some of these hybrids on the reef as early as next year.

Yet it doesn’t stop there. Other researchers are focusing on the symbiotic algae the coral harbor instead. They have taken the algae and, over 80 generations in the lab, selectively bred only those that are heat tolerant. Another option is to look at the symbiotic bacteria that live on the coral and to produce in effect a probiotic that can be sprayed on the surviving coral to help them cope with the increasing temperatures.     

The researchers behind the work are well aware that their methods may be viewed as extreme and risky. The introduction of new species, especially ones created in a lab through cross-breeding and genetic tweaks, doesn’t exactly have a glittering reputation. However, they argue that action needs to happen now.

“It is too late to leave them alone, given the pace at which we are losing corals,” van Oppen told The Guardian. “I don’t have any problem with that. We have already intervened in the marine environment tremendously and there is no part where we cannot see human influence.”

This is all, however, just a stop gap. These actions will simply buy time for us to deal with the bigger problem of greenhouse gases and climate change.

[H/T: The Guardian]

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