Human Assisted Evolution Applied to Increase the Resilience of Corals
The quest to stabilize and restore coral reefs, a critical component of our ocean ecosystem, is receiving increased help through a unique research project supported by The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. As ocean temperatures rise and oceans become more acidic, corals are declining in record numbers. A new project and winner of the 2013 Paul G. Allen Ocean Challenge will apply human-assisted evolution in developing resilient coral species to help reverse this decline.
“Not all corals are created equal,” said researcher and co-grantee Ruth D. Gates from the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. “We will capitalize on those corals that already show a stronger ability to withstand the changing ocean environment and their capacity to pass this resilience along to new generations.”
The winning research team of Gates and Madeleine van Oppen from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) was awarded the $10,000 grand prize and invited to submit a grant proposal for funding consideration. A nearly $4-million, five-year project agreement was reached in June of this year, with research timed to maximize this summer’s peak coral reproduction season in North America.
“Paul Allen is deeply committed to ocean health and has a growing portfolio of programs targeted at the protection of marine life,” explained Dune Ives, senior director on behalf of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. “This project uniquely addresses the need to reverse the rapid decline of our coral reef ecosystems.”
Initial research will be conducted in Hawaii and Australia, providing an unparalleled opportunity to study different coral species, environmental conditions and human factors to generate stronger research conclusions than single-site data.
At the University of Hawaii’s Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island, Gates and her team are working with a set of corals that were unaffected by a warming event last year that caused bleaching in many of their neighboring adjacent strains. These resilient corals are being conditioned to survive in increasingly warmer and more acidic water. Gates refers to this as “training corals on environmental treadmills.” The goal is to induce greater resilience in the individual samples as well as in their offspring.
“Once we have a proof of concept, we’ll build a bank of coral stocks that are preconditioned to withstand the warmer and more acidic ocean conditions of the future,” said Gates. “Within the five-year grant period we should have a significant stockpile of highly resilient coral strains and a plan in place to use them to restore a completely denuded reef, as well as plant them on a partially damaged reef so they can reproduce with the existing corals and enhance the overall resilience of the vulnerable reef.”
The Australian experiments will be conducted in the state-of-the art National Sea Simulator (SeaSim) located on the campus of AIMS headquarters in Cape Ferguson. The SeaSim allows for tightly controlled environmental factors including temperature and water acidity during the selective breeding-style activities.
The Australian-component of the research will use human-assisted evolution. This is an innovative use of the age-old selective breeding techniques similar to those used in the agriculture industry. “Assisted evolution takes advantage of natural processes,” said van Oppen. “It accelerates the evolution of coral and with the rapid decline of coral health worldwide, the development of tools to help protect corals from stress is urgent.”
“At the Foundation, we are excited about this project because of the significant need that it addresses,” said Ives. “If coral reefs continue to decline due to warmer, more acidic ocean water, marine ecosystems will forever be altered with ripple effects that we don’t yet fully comprehend.”
About Paul G. Allen Family Foundation
For more than four decades the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has focused on changing the trajectory of some of the world's toughest problems. Founded by philanthropists Jody Allen and the late Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, the foundation initially invested in community needs across the Pacific Northwest with a focus on regional arts, under-served populations, and the environment. Today, the foundation supports a global portfolio of frontline partners working to preserve ocean health, protect wildlife, combat climate change, and strengthen communities. The foundation invests in grantees to leverage technology, fill data and science gaps, and drive positive public policy to advance knowledge and enable lasting change.
About the University of Hawaii System
Established in 1907 and fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the University of Hawaii System includes 10 campuses and dozens of educational, training and research centers across the state. As the sole public system of higher education in Hawaii, UH offers an array of undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees and community programs. UH enrolls more than 60,000 students from Hawai‘i, the U.S. mainland and around the world. For more information visit www.hawaii.edu.
About Australian Institute of Marine Science
The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) is Australia’s tropical marine research agency, committed to producing the highest quality science to better understand our coastal and ocean environment. AIMS’ mission is to generate and transfer knowledge to support the protection and sustainable use of the marine environment, through innovative, world-class scientific and technological research.