Scientists Are Breeding 'Super Corals' To Save Reefs From Global Warming

Using assisted evolution, researchers are developing corals resilient to warmer and more acidic water.

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.

A sea turtle feeds behind bleached coral.
A sea turtle feeds behind bleached coral.
Rainer von Brandis via Getty Images

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 -type approaches in which foreign 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.

Ruth Gates shows corals that are undergoing enhancement at her lab on Coconut Island, Hawaii.
Ruth Gates shows corals that are undergoing enhancement at her lab on Coconut Island, Hawaii.

The quest to grow hearty corals comes as researchers are warning about the dire health of the world's reefs. An estimated 30 percent of the planet's coral has already perished as a result of above-average ocean temperatures, El Nino's effects and acidification.

Just last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the third ever global coral bleaching event, begging the question: Is there time?

With the requisite amount of effort and funding, Tom Oliver, a marine biologist and team leader at NOAA's Coral Reef Ecosystem Division, said Gates's project is scalable and promising.

"The question is not can they do it, it's can they do it fast enough?" Oliver said.

Below, a video about the team's work to breed "super corals" in Hawaii.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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