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How to Save Coral Reefs from Climate Change: Genetic Manipulation

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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As close to pristine as reefs come: the coral at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

What’s the best idea for reducing the impacts of ocean acidification on the environment and society? After all, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue to go up and up and up, which suggests that the pH of seawater will continue to fall and fall and fall. The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has weighed in with its opinion: genetics for coral.

Here’s how the winning scientists — Ruth Gates of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Madeleine von Oppen from the Australian Institute of Marine Science — put it in a Q&A on the Allen Foundation website: “similar to the genetic selection of animals and plants, coral reef organisms could be genetically selected to boost their resilience to environmental stress.”

That environmental stress, by the way, doesn’t just include more acidic waters that make reef-building more difficult, but also warmer waters that cause corals to freak out and bleach, expelling the algae that feed them. Then there are non-climate change related threats like overfishing, which allows already weakened coral to be overtaken by seaweed, or human pollution, which prompts disease outbreaks in the reef and other troubles, like dead zones.

The two marine ecologists turned molecular biologists have won a $10,000 prize for the plan to import some of the genetic techniques used in agriculture to help save a wild, oceanic ecosystem. They also get the chance to present the concept at the upcoming Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu next February.

As one of the co-founders of Microsoft, Allen has plenty of money to play with, and has dabbled in everything from building a complete map of the brain to the money that enabled SpaceShipOne to garner the Ansari X Prize for suborbital spaceflight back in 2004. He even helped fund the building of a radio telescope to search for extraterrestrial life. It remains to be seen whether genetically engineering corals to resist more acid waters and warmer seas proves feasible and useful, or a winning idea with the public.

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rocket77777 8:29 pm 10/16/2013

    Planting plants on land and seagrass etc. on ocean are best. Also dredge 1/3 stripe at time or something so seagrass have time to recover.
    Also, rather than genetic engineering, adding variety that can thrive on nutrient rich ocean is best since farming and other pollution allow it.

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  2. 2. Russell Seitz 11:34 am 10/17/2013

    Some coral biologists want to explore addressing the problem of thermal stress by reducing the solar heat load by brightening the water itself:

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  3. 3. 2:31 pm 10/17/2013

    Allen’s interests are at odds themselves, he wants to save the oceans from acidification while making private spaceflight possible which will just exasperate Global Warming with the higher greenhouse emissions spaceflight will induce; it takes ten times the amount of energy to take a pound to space and a hundred times the energy to put that pound in orbit than to take that pound to thirty thousand feet.

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  4. 4. pdjmoo 11:41 pm 10/17/2013

    It gets really tiring and repetitive to continually hear that genetic engineering is the answer to all our woes when, in fact, what is being said is “let’s keep on doing what we’re doing that is causing the catastrophic ecosystem and climate change impacts and we’ll just keep on changing nature to suit our needs”. I do think it is time that everyone understand, without reservation, that a healthy, balanced natural world is the key to the survival of all species. And that focusing on restoring nature to health, instead of manipulating Her to be other than She is, is where our efforts should be. Science does not have all the answers or understanding of the complex biosphere and ecosystems that sustain us. Nature has the answers and perhaps returning to some humility to learn from Her what Her wholistic needs are would take us out of the myopic lab and back into becoming a species within the greater biosphere instead of living as if we’re separate from it. Science and technology has a place if taken into account with the greater whole, but it is not God.

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  5. 5. bucketofsquid 3:20 pm 10/18/2013 – Since when does a thermal trend have emotions? Just because spell check says a word is spelled right doesn’t mean it is the right word. Exasperate is to cause an emotional frustration. Exacerbate is to make worse.

    @pdjmoo – By capitalizing your references to nature and using a gender specific term as if nature was a sentient being you lose credibility because you imply that you are elevating nature to a divine status. That is silly at best.

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  6. 6. wjohnfaust 9:54 pm 10/21/2013

    @pdjmoo — I certainly agree that our efforts to engineer our way out of mess we engineered our way into is deflating at best. At some point, we need to recognize the overwhelming complexity of the life force in the universe and on this planet. Yes, humility would be a welcome change.

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  7. 7. peterwebb 12:27 am 10/22/2013

    Mostly this is nonsense. Corals have existed for about 400 million years, during which time both temperature and atmospheric CO2 were at levels far, far higher than today. There is zero evidence of human changes to CO2 levels adversely affecting coral reefs. Whilst lots of reefs have experienced degradation over the last 50 years, this does not occur in the absence of other human impacts. So, for example, whilst sections of the Great Barrier Reef are stressed, the Ningaloo reefs off Western Australia (which do not suffer from agricultural runoff) are unaffected. If the cause of reef degradation was atmospheric CO2, all reefs should be affected (as CO2 disperses in the atmosphere), but they aren’t.

    So there we have it. We know that reefs happily tolerated CO2 levels 10 times higher than today in the past, so there is no historical evidence which suggests a problem. Nor can we find any evidence for current harm; isolated reefs are unaffected, suggesting that additional CO2 is not causing a problem. With zero evidence for reef harm from additional CO2, it is hard to see how reducing CO2 will help coral reefs. What will unquestionably reduce reef degradation in Australia is reducing agricultural runoff. Overseas, the major threat is reef ecosystem destruction through overfishing and coral destruction for cement manufacture. If you care about our coral reefs (and I do, very much) forget about anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere and start worrying about phosphates in runoff.

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  8. 8. kkaw49 9:20 am 10/22/2013

    Is there a map showing the areas where the corals are under stress, the thermal power plants nearby and the prevailing currents? I suspect we can see come correlations.

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