Ocean Acidification Has A New Enemy: Super Corals

10/22/2013 12:23 am ET

In case you hadn’t heard, CO2 levels are rising, the ocean is absorbing the CO2 and ocean waters are becoming more acidic. This means dead coral, which in turn unfortunately means unlivable conditions for the entire ocean ecosystem.

There is plenty of speculation about whether we can or can’t reverse the unsustainable amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere, but two scientists are approaching the problem in another way: If the CO2 is here to stay, can we make the corals climate-change resistant?

Super corals can be part of the solution to the ocean’s death sentence, according to University of Hawaii researcher Ruth D. Gates and Australian Institute for Marine Science’s Dr. Madeleine van Oppen. The two just won a grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation through the foundation’s “Ocean Challenge,” a contest that offered $10,000 to “the most promising new science-based concept for mitigating environmental and/or societal impacts of ocean acidification.”

Super corals are corals that have proven particularly resistant to acidic conditions and warmer water temperatures. They are not genetically engineered, but rather genetically selected.

“Similar to the genetic selection of animals and plants, coral reef organisms could be genetically selected to boost their resilience to environmental stress, but this has not yet been attempted,” Gates and van Oppen told the Allen Foundation.

They call it “human-assisted evolution” for corals, and through it, Gates and von Oppen hope to build a stock of super corals that can be used to repopulate dead reef areas and to amplify the contributions of artificial reefs. “It involves pre-conditioning corals to high-acidification scenarios“ van Oppen said. “Our goal is to develop and maintain banks of ecologically important, structurally diverse and geographically widespread coral species.”

In science prize standards, $10,000 is a modest amount. But the award is meant to facilitate Gates and von Oppen’s ability to write a grant to apply for full project funding. Even if their idea works, it will be a long time before super coral stocks could be widely implemented around the world’s dying reefs, and by then who knows what the globally-warmed world will look like. Hopefully, super corals can withstand it.

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