Teaching coral to toughen up could help reefs survive climate change

Teaching coral to toughen up could help reefs survive climate change

- in Science
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As the world’s oceans continue to warm, coral reefs are struggling to survive. In recent years large swaths of some of the world’s biggest and best known reefs have died, and a recent UN report maintains that the reefs could “cease to exist as functioning coral reef ecosystems by the end of this century” unless steps are taking to protect them.

But scientists are stepping in to help. From floating chemical “sunscreens” to reef-patrolling robots, they’re developing all sorts of strategies and devices to help coral. In one of the most promising approaches, researchers are looking for ways to accelerate the pace at which corals adapt to warmer seas — so they can survive rather than succumb.

It’s too soon to know whether this approach will work. But recent research shows that coral that has survived one especially warm period has a better chance of surviving another one.

Harnessing genes

Manuel Aranda, a marine scientist at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia and the author of two studies published in June and August in the journal Science Advances, thinks the first warming event activates genes that prime the coral to cope with the next round of heat stress.

He says it’s a bit like how people who take time off from exercising after getting into shape are quickly able to get back in shape once they start working out again.

If Aranda is right — and if this optimal gene function can be passed from one generation of coral to the next — it might be possible to set up coral nurseries where corals are preconditioned to survive heat before being transplanted into the wild. “Maybe we could give them a little head start, so that when the heat wave comes, they can respond faster and better than a coral that has not been trained,” he says.

Why coral reefs count

Coral reefs play a vital role in the global ecosystem and economy. Though they cover a tiny fraction of the sea floor, they’re home to 25 percent of all marine plants and animals, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In addition to helping protect vital fisheries, reefs help safeguard nearby coastal areas from dangerous wave action and are a major attraction for tourists. Globally, they produce $9.9 trillion per year in economic benefits, says James Porter, an emeritus professor of ecology at the University of Georgia and a noted expert on diseases of coral.

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