Assisted evolution and coral reefs

Coral, an animal that has survived on this planet for more than 200 million years, is in dire danger. Some species’ very existence is threatened to the brink of extinction. More than 500 million people depend on healthy coral reefs for food. And millions more rely on thriving reefs to drive their tourism-based economies.

Valued in the billions of dollars, if not more, coral reefs protect coastal communities by creating natural sea walls that dramatically diffuse wave energy and storm surges. They also serve as “underwater rainforests,” regulating atmospheric gases. They provide medicinal benefits for humans and are home to a quarter of all marine life.

But in the last 30 years, half of the world’s coral reefs have been lost, scientists say. Unprecedented bleaching — a stress response that leaves corals vulnerable to massive die-offs — has devastated reefs from Hawai‘i to Florida, Australia to Africa. “It’s a very urgent time for reefs,” says Ruth Gates, director of the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB). “We’re talking about conditions that will not allow corals to survive in their natural state.”

“The scientific community has come together and decided we have to do better than documenting the demise of reefs,” says Bob Richmond, who heads the Pacific Biosciences Research Center (PBRC)’s  Kewalo Marine Laboratory in Honolulu. “We’ve got to come up with solutions to not only understand what the problems are but how to address these problems.” Richmond is looking at the hardy corals of Honolulu Harbor for answers.

It’s this sense of urgency that has Gates and others working on experiments in Kāne‘ohe Bay to breed “super corals” that are more resilient to warmer, more acidic waters. Gates says there are three fundamentally important aspects that drive whether a coral will bleach or not — their parents, their partners and their past. Gates and Madeleine van Oppen from the Australian Institute of Marine Science won the Paul G. Allen Ocean Challenge in 2013, which came with a $10,000 prize. Gates says it let them apply for a grant that brought them $4 million to underwrite a five-year project, which they began about 18 months ago.

Read more about it and watch the videos at Honolulu Civil Beat and The Weather Channel; also, read more about it in The New York Times.