Coral reefs are in such bad shape that scientists may have to speed up their evolution

Posted: February 4, 2015 at 1:46 am

The coral reefs of the world are in serious danger. A recent scientific report on corals in the Caribbean Sea, for instance, found that coral cover declined from 34.8 percent to 16.3 percent from 1970 to 2012.

One of the chief threats to corals is climate change. Not only do warmer waters stress the species, leading to bleaching events like the one pictured above. Climate change provides a double blow to corals because it also brings on ocean acidification, driven by increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide (caused by the burning of fossil fuels) dissolved in seawater. As sea waters acidify, corals have a harder time producing calcium carbonate, which is crucial to reef formation.

Thats why, in the latest issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of researchers from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology now tentatively propose something that they admit is extremely novel in conservation circles. Namely, they suggest that humans may need to intervene in the breeding of corals so as to assist their evolution.

Such anthropogenically enhanced corals may survive better, the researchers suggest, in a world of warming and acidifying seas. Moreover, this environmental engineering may be necessary as a last-ditch effort since, to be blunt, climate change is proceeding so fast with so much change already locked in that there may be no other choice.

So what are they planning to do? This isgenetic alteration, to be sure evolution always is but it isnot what we typically think of as genetic engineering.Although the development of GMO corals might be contemplated in extremis at a future time, we advocate less drastic approaches, notes the study.

Theyre not proposing Frankenstein coral, stressesNancy Knowlton, a marine scientist at the Smithsonian Institution who edited the paper.

Rather, assisted evolution entails a series of strategies that are perhaps best likened to the domestic breeding of anything from dogs to cows to pigeons to change their attributes. Charles Darwin called it artificial selection, as opposed to natural selection, which usually plays out over much longer periods of time.

For corals, heres how it might work. The researchers propose a number of strategies,some affecting corals and some affecting the communities of microbes that live with them in a symbiotic relationship.

For instance, scientists might identify strains of the appropriately namedSymbiodinium tiny microbes that live inside corals and are essentialto reef growth that are more resistant to temperatures. Then they could introduce this strain into corals in the wild that are struggling.

Yet anotherproposal, meanwhile, is actually guiding the evolution of Symbiodinium in the lab by using x-rays or chemicals that would lead the organisms to evolve and adapt more quickly.

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Coral reefs are in such bad shape that scientists may have to speed up their evolution

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