Climate-change adaptation: Designer reefs

A small group of coral researchers around the world are focusing on assisting the evolution of corals to prepare them against climate change.


Palumbi is part of a small group of coral researchers around the world tackling such issues to throw threatened reefs a lifeline. Their ultimate intent is to launch a programme of ‘human-assisted evolution’, creating resistant corals in controlled nurseries and planting them in areas that have been — or will be — hard-hit by changing conditions. “It’s a brave new world of working with corals in this way,” says Ruth Gates, a marine biologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who, along with coral geneticist Madeleine van Oppen at the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville, is helping to pioneer the field.

The work is not without controversy. Although no one is yet attempting to create genetically modified corals, some researchers are concerned that human-assisted evolution goes too far down the slippery slope of altering natural systems. “If you’re basically farming a reef, you’ve taken a natural habitat and you’ve converted it,” says Steve Vollmer, a coral geneticist at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts, who feels that more needs to be known before embarking on such programmes. “It’s like going to the Midwest and taking grasslands and making it into soy. There are huge implications to doing this.”

In hot water

Coral reefs have been besieged in recent decades by everything from warming waters to ocean acidification, disease, overfishing and pollution. According to Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2008, a synthesis report1 by hundreds of scientists and environmental managers, 19% of the world’s coral reefs have been lost since 1950 and another 35% are threatened or in critical condition. Some areas have suffered disproportionately: the Caribbean, for example, has lost 80% of its reefs since the 1970s (ref. 2). By the end of this century, researchers expect ocean waters to drop from a pH of 8.1 to 7.9 or lower, and to warm by at least 2 °C, averaged across the globe. “It’s kind of like if you pull the plug on the bathtub and the water is rushing out — that’s the state of corals,” says Palumbi.

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