Corals began building reefs at least 200 million years ago, predating humans by at least 199.8 million years. They're literally pillars of their communities, supporting major ecosystems and economies all around the planet. But while natural selection has gotten them this far, the sudden danger of manmade climate change — particularly ocean acidification
— may soon require an extra boost from "human-assisted evolution."
People have a long history of selectively breeding plants and animals to feed or befriend us, and a pair of researchers from the U.S. and Australia thinks we might save coral reefs if we can breed them to withstand us. They want to create acid-tolerant super corals
without genetic engineering and release them into the wild, a long-shot plan that just got a $10,000 vote of confidence
from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.
"Human-assisted evolution for corals is a radical departure from the conservation perspective traditionally applied in the field," says University of Hawaii marine biologist Ruth Gates
, who pitched the idea with Australian Institute of Marine Science researcher Madeleine van Oppen
. "It's often confused with GMO-type approaches in which foreign DNA is introduced, but in reality, we are proposing to accelerate naturally occurring evolutionary processes."
Not only does the plan not involve GMOs
, van Oppen adds, but it's based on an ancient precedent. "Our approach is analogous to the genetic selection of animals and plants in agriculture, aquaculture and forestry, and involves pre-conditioning corals to high-acidification scenarios, selective breeding, and introducing new symbionts to the coral hosts," she says. "Our goal is to develop and maintain banks of ecologically important, structurally diverse and geographically widespread coral species."
Once those super corals exist, Gates and van Oppen hope to test them in the wild, both by restoring a dead reef and by "greening" a concrete artificial one. A prize of $10,000 may not sound like much — especially after the X Prize Foundation recently announced a $2 million contest
to tackle ocean acidity — but it's meant to jump-start their research. In addition to the prize money, the duo will be invited to submit a full grant proposal for further funding, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation explains on its website
Since ocean acidification is caused by seawater absorbing carbon dioxide from the air, curbing manmade CO2 emissions is widely seen as the only thorough solution. But that's unlikely to happen quickly, and CO2 can hang around for centuries after it's emitted, so Gates and van Oppen say we should do anything we can to save corals in the meantime.
"Coral reefs are reservoirs of biodiversity and play central roles in coastal security, tourism and fisheries," Gates says. "Reef health is declining at an alarming rate across the globe as a result of human-induced climate change. The results of this project have the potential to transform our capacity to preserve and restore coral reefs and to sustain human services in a future characterized by more acidic and warmer coastal waters."
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