Scientists are tinkering with the idea of growing “super corals.” How will this brighten prospects for extremely bleached coral life and marine ecosystem faced with warmer, more acidic waters due to climate change?
Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared that the third ever global coral beaching event has occurred, with an estimated 30 percent of Earth’s coral currently dying from higher-than-average ocean temperatures coupled with acidification and the effects of El Nino.
Using selective breeding, researchers out of the University of Hawaii now started their experiment with “super corals” aimed at capably withstanding future ocean conditions. Target corals will be those exhibiting strength and resilience to be passed on to succeeding generations.
The resulting corals will be transplanted Kaneohe Bay, where up to 80 percent have been devastated in 2015, and then grown and reproduced while human-induced climate change is taking place.
In the rush to grow healthy corals, the news came as a welcome development, with marine experts such as Tom Oliver, team lead at the coral reef ecosystem division at the NOAA, calling it scalable and promising. "The question is not can they do it, it's can they do it fast enough?" he said.
While corals have the potential to recover – they are colonial animals whose portions survive and regrow slowly over time – the challenge is that the growth is very slow and full recovery could take years to happen.
The proliferation of “super corals” and revival of coral life are hoped to help ensure the continued diversity of ecosystems, where coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine creature.
With up to 8 million estimated undiscovered species residing in and around coral reefs, continued biodiversity is seen to help create new medicines and cures for human conditions.
Coral reefs also have immense economic and environmental value: providing goods and services worth $375 billion annually, fueling local tourism through diving tours and businesses near reef systems, and amounting to $100 million in commercial U.S. fisheries.
They also make up a quarter of the total fish catch in developing nations, providing critical food sources to tens of millions.
Ruth Gates, Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology director and part of the team experimenting “super corals,” however asserted that their venture should not be confused with a GMO-type endeavor.
Her team, according to her, is breeding corals naturally via "accelerating rates of evolution, not introducing new evolutionary innovation.
Photo: USFWS - Pacific Region | Flickr