Scientists tinker with evolution to save Hawaii coral reefs

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In this Oct. 23, 2015 photo provided by Vulcan, Inc., researchers Ruth Gates, left, Beth Lenz, center, and Jen Davidson, right, all from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, dive near a coral reef in Hawaii’s Kaneohe Bay off the island of Oahu. Scientists are preparing to transplant laboratory-enhanced coral onto reefs in Hawaii in hopes that the high-performing specimens will strengthen the overall health of the reef. Using assisted evolution, researchers from the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology are creating a form of “super coral” that can be used to seed and strengthen other suffering reefs. (Hugh Gentry/Vulcan Inc. via AP)

Scientists at a research center on Hawaii’s Coconut Island have embarked on an experiment to grow “super coral” that they hope can withstand the hotter and more acidic oceans that are expected with global warming.

The quest to grow the hearty coral comes at a time when researchers are warning about the dire health of the world’s reefs, which create habitats for marine life, protect shorelines and drive tourist economies.

When coral is stressed by changing environmental conditions, it expels the symbiotic algae that live within it and the animal turns white or bright yellow, a process called bleaching, said Ruth Gates, director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

If the organisms are unable to recover from these bleaching events, especially when they recur over several consecutive years, the coral will die. Gates estimated that about 60 to 80 percent of the coral in Kaneohe Bay has bleached this year.

“The bleaching has intensified and got much more serious,” said Gates of the coral around the bay. Where they once looked for the bleached coral among the healthy, Gates said her team is now “looking for the healthy individuals in a sea of pale corals.”

Gates and her team are taking the coral to their center on the 29-acre isle, once a retreat for the rich and famous and home to television’s Gilligan’s Island, and slowly exposing them to slightly more stressful water.

They bathe chunks of coral that they’ve already identified as having strong genes in water that mimics the warmer and more acidic oceans. They are also taking resilient strains and breeding them with one another, helping perpetuate those stronger traits.

The theory they are testing is called assisted evolution, and while it has been used for thousands of years on other plants and animals, the concept has not been applied to coral living in the wild.

“We’ve given them experiences that we think are going to raise their ability to survive stress,” Gates said. She said they hope to see these corals, which will soon be transplanted into the bay, maintain their color, grow normally and then reproduce next summer.

In early October, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that coral reefs worldwide are experiencing bleaching, calling the event extensive and severe.

“We may be looking at losing somewhere in the range of 10 to 20 percent of the coral reefs this year,” NOAA coral reef watch coordinator Mark Eakin said when the report was released. “Hawaii is getting hit with the worst coral bleaching they have ever seen.”

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