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The Great Barrier Reef Is Doing So Badly, Scientist Are Testing Genetic Modification to Help It Survive

As the health of the Great Barrier Reef declines, scientists are hoping “assisted evolution” might keep its coral alive

(Norbert Probst/imageBROKER/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

After years of stress from water pollution, coral destruction and overfishing, the Great Barrier Reef is hurting—in the last 30 years, its live coral coverage is reported to have declined around 50 percent. And even as regulations have slowed the reef's degradation, rising sea surface temperatures, likely caused by climate change, have become another great threat to its survival: a rise in ocean temperatures of just one to two degrees Celsius could accelerate coral death to the point that the reef’s ability to recover from damages would be threatened, according to one recent study.

The reef is in enough immediate danger that scientists are now thinking about how to actively assist the reef’s coral through genetic modification. In what’s being referred to as “assisted evolution,” scientists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science and the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology have begun the initial work of creating a kind of hybrid coral specially suited for warmer waters. “These studies are some of the first conservation-based, non-commercial uses of genetic modification,” the Guardian reports:

Coral from the central part of the Great Barrier Reef has been crossed with coral from the colder reaches of the southern reef to see if the resulting hybrid was more resilient in higher temperatures. Scientists are also looking at whether they can alter the microbial communities, the algae that live within coral tissue, so they can adapt to climate change.

The hope is that the studies may show that the invertebrate’s evolutionary process can be sped up, allowing it to more quickly adapt to changes in its environment. There are no current plans to implement genetic adaptions on a wide scale, but scientists point out that preparation is key to staying ahead of the Great Barrier Reef’s potential future decline.

“We want to spend the next five years experimenting, to find out which manipulations work best. It’s an important area to invest in,” Dr. Madeleine van Oppen, a senior principal research scientist at the Australia Institute of Marine Science told the Guardian. “We need these methods available in case we want to implement them. If we don’t, we may be too late if the situation does get bad.”

Genetic alteration isn’t the only tactic scientists are exploring in hopes of boosting the reef’s health. In 2012, one group of scientists proposed the use of shade cloth to help shield coral from the heat of the sun. And, while it won’t protect the animals from warming water, coral transplants are one way to help regrow damaged reefs.

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