After noticing the sap of colors in corals due to stress during the late 1980s, Ruth Gates devises a plan with her colleague, Madeleine van Oppen of the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences to save the ocean’s coral reefs. They hope to protect corals from rapid climate change by artificially speeding up their evolution.
The purpose of Corals: Corals provide physical and ecological support for a third of all marine life. This makes them what ecologists’ term “keystone species”. Their health is vital for the wellbeing of countless other species, including humans. Humans use coral reefs for fisheries, where fishes flourish, breed, and feed. For example, In the Pacific Islands, 70% of the animal protein in human diets stems from the reef. As you can see, not humans need corals for scientific and agricultural reasons and other species need corals to survive. These statistics are what encouraged researchers to find solutions to the coral epidemic.
The Extinction of Corals: Corals are dying worldwide. Since 1950, for example, an estimated 19% of corals have been lost. Today, nearly a third of all reef-building species are threatened with extinction. The reason for this is Dynamite fishing and trawling, which convert once rich ecosystems into underwater deserts. Dynamite fishing is the practice of using explosions to kill schools of fish for selection, while trawling is a method of fishing where fishermen pull fish through an underwater net by a boat. As you can see, these destructive fishing methods are disruptive to underwater life.
The Diversity of Corals: There are countless varieties and combinations of algae and bacteria associated with different corals, each providing distinctive benefits to their host. Corals can be divided into five or six groups, or ecotypes, each with similar life traits. Some grow rapidly. Others can take decades to become established on the reef. There are species that form delicate branches, reaching up to the sunlight. And many others look like a cross between a rock and a brain.
Saving Corals with Science: In their labs, scientists Gates and van Oppen are ramping up the temperature of their captive corals – each collected from the reef on Coconut Island in Hawaii or from the Great Barrier Reef – to try to find those with the beneficial epigenetic traits in order to allow corals to adapt to changing conditions within their own lifetime, without altering the genetic code itself. Both Gates and van Oppen envision a day when corals are exposed to bursts of heat or acid stress, engendering future generations with a genetic toolkit most fit to the conditions they are likely to face. Gates states that it’s about “raising the resilience of corals”. Even if epigenetics is limited to just one lifetime, there are other ways to help the corals. Through these scientific methods, knowledge of the corals extinction, and the motivation of the scientists that is put into finding solutions to the coral issues, teams are optimistic about the dying of corals.
Algae: Gates seeks to select certain unions of corals that are very robust in the face of stress. A group called Clade D algae includes the most stress-tolerant varieties of all. Corals tend not to like Clade D. Even though they would benefit in the long run from a more stable partnership, corals prefer Clade C algae, which are better food factories. Van Oppen aims to provide them with both. She plans to subject Clade C algae to elevated temperatures and acidity, and only re-grow those that survive or thrive. Early indications believe that artificial selection can turn Clade C algae into a long-time partner.
The Future of Corals: Within Marine protected areas and other aquatic national parks, people plan to preserve and protect coral reefs. However, lab and environmental science is helping coral reefs everywhere by keeping them away from the dangers of human fishing methods and by re-growing corals that are strong.
Conclusions: Critics claim that the diversity of corals will be reduced if such methods are put into practice. However, Gates and other scientists seem to believe otherwise. Gates says “I want to see the decline in coral reefs start to stabilise while we attend to the much bigger issue of mitigating fossil fuel burning.” Gates insists that “A coral reef with reduced diversity is better than no reef at all”. He explains that their efforts are not useless and can do no harm. He also claims that there will be benefits to these coral reefs even if they do not succeed in acceleration of the reefs. The motivation of Gates and Van Oppen just shows us how two out of many scientists are putting in a lot of effort to save the beautiful and natural corals that are found in the ocean.
- Riley, Alex. The Women with a Controversial Plan to Save Corals. Earth. The BBC. 2016.
- Coral. Clogster. 2007-2016.