Behind the Scenes: Breeding Super Coral

A Team of Scientists Are Using Assisted Evolution to Grow Coral That can Withstand Climate Change

Published in Al Jazeera on January 26, 2015 7:00PM ET. Article by Lauren Ellis

On this week's episode of TechKnow, Marita Davison travels to Hawaiʻi to report on the a global coral bleaching event. According to a recent report from the WWF, coral reef cover has declined by 50% in the last 30 years, and reefs could disappear by as early as 2050. Corals are sentinals for a much broader issues plaguing our oceans: sea surface temperature rise, ocean acidification, and the damaging impacts of climate change.

To stabilize and restore coral reefs from the brink of collapse, a team of scientists at the University of Hawaii's Institute of Marine Biology are intervening by attempting to breed "super coral." They'll take samples from the reef, bring them back to the lab, and apply techniques in assisted evolution to create a hardier, more resilient tool that can withstand climate change.

The key with assisted evolution is epigenetics, that is, taking the genes of resilient coral strains and passing them on to younger offspring. Epigenetics doesn't change a coral's genetic code, but it does change how it's used or expressed. This can allow a coral to modify part of their genome to better adapt and respond to environmental stress.

Some scenes from our upcoming episode airing this Saturday below.

Two divers don mask on the back of a boat
TechKnow correspondent Marita Davison and Dr. Gates ready to dive
A woman points a printed out map showing grades of color
Picking out a dive site to see coral in three colors: white, brown, or dead. Those indicate different levels of health.
two divers swim by a bleached coral
Marita and Dr. Gates diving above the coral reef, note the white coral amidst the brown. That's evidence of coral bleaching.
A diver attaches tags to a bleached portion of a coral
The team tags coral on each dive, an essential task for long term monitoring.
In these tanks, scientists are able to manipulate virtually any condition corals will face, including exposure to heat, acidity and light.
micro coral in the incubator
A ‘baby coral’… bred to withstand the stressful condition associated with climate change
Samples taken from the ocean to bring back to the Gates lab
Baby corals conditioned in the lab are taken back out to the ocean and placed on the reef for observation
Dr. Hollie Putnam stands at a lab computer observing an image of coral
Dr. Hollie Putnam examines a piece of coral taken from the reefs of Kane’Ohe Bay.
TechKnow correspondent Marita Davison looking at coral specimen underneath the confocal microscope with Amy Eggers and Dr. Ruth Gates
TechKnow correspondent Marita Davison looking at coral specimen underneath the confocal microscope with Amy Eggers and Dr. Ruth Gates.

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