How to Save Coral Reefs from Climate Change: Genetic Manipulation

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How to Save Coral Reefs from Climate Change: Genetic Manipulation
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How to Save Coral Reefs from Climate Change: Genetic Manipulation
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.

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