New genetic technologies are enabling scientists to identify traits that may help corals survive warming ocean temperatures that threaten the survival of coral reefs critical to marine ecosystems.
(From NewsDeeply/ by Erica Cirino) — Marine biologist Ruth Gates sat down in an oversized wooden rocking chair at an oceanside resort here last week to talk about the next frontier in coral science and a new hope for saving coral reefs reeling from climate change: genetic technology.
“There are hundreds of species of coral, all with complex biologies and physiological traits that vary based on their DNA and environment,” Gates, director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, said while seated on a sprawling lanai overlooking acres of coral reefs awash in turquoise waters.
“Using genetic technology to identify corals resilient to environmental stressors may allow us to save corals – which are some of the most threatened organisms on Earth,” added Gates, a leading coral scientist who was featured in the new documentary “Chasing Coral.”
Coral reefs provide habitat to a quarter of the world’s marine species and are crucial sources of food and income to hundreds of millions of people. While corals are typically hardy creatures, rising ocean temperatures, acidification and pollution are harming corals on a scale not seen in recorded history. The world has lost about 50 percent of its coral reefs in just the past three decades, and in the next three decades it’s expected to lose more than 40 percent more. The unprecedented back-to-back coral bleaching events of 2014–17 devastated coral reefs worldwide.
According to Gates and other marine scientists, identifying both weak and resilient coral species is imperative to protect surviving reefs and help others recover. But cataloging corals with traditional visualization techniques can be challenging because even individuals belonging to the same species can be quite variable in appearance and react in different ways to the same environmental stressors.
Researchers at the University of Washington, led by doctoral student James Dimond, have attempted to make coral identification simpler and more accurate by using new genetic technologies. In a study published in the journal Molecular Ecology on August 12, Dimond’s group described how they sequenced coral genomes to determine if three distinct-looking individual corals belonged to three different species or one species with varying traits.
“If they are to be protected, we must be able to define a species,” said Dimond. “Genomes are huge – millions of letters – even for seemingly simple organisms like corals. Until pretty recently, we’ve only had the ability to look at a tiny, tiny fraction of an organism’s genome. The more the technology continues to advance, the deeper we are able to dig.”