Scientists Are Breeding ‘Super Corals’ To Save Reefs From Global Warming

For thousands of years, human beings have been helping evolution along by tinkering with the breeding habits of plants and animals.

Now, as one of our favorite underwater features faces serious threats from warming oceans, acidification, pollution and overfishing, scientists are rallying to breed a better future for coral reefs.

Using selective breeding, researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa have begun experimenting with “super corals” that can withstand future ocean conditions.

Not all corals are created equal,” Ruth Gates, director of UH Manoa’s Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, said in a statement. “We will capitalize on those corals that already show a stronger ability to withstand the changing ocean environment and their capacity to pass this resilience along to new generations.”

At a research center on the 28-acre Coconut Island, in Kaneohe Bay, Gates and her team are further stressing strong corals by exposing them to warmer, more acidic water. They then breed the resilient strains with one another, helping perpetuate the stronger traits.

Assisted evolution has never before been applied to coral living in the wild. While groundbreaking, Ruth said it’s not to be confused with GMO-type approaches in which foreign DNA is introduced. Rather, she said her team is breeding corals in a natural manner by “accelerating rates of evolution, not introducing new evolutionary innovation.”

The resulting super corals will eventually be transplanted to Kaneohe Bay, where an estimated 60 percent to 80 percent of corals have bleached this year. Coral bleaching is a phenomenon in which stressed corals expel algae and turn white. If not given time to recover, bleached corals can perish.

With any luck, the transplanted super corals will grow, remain healthy and reproduce in the face of climate change.

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