As It Happens

Biologists want to make 'super coral' to take on climate change

Hawaii biologist Ruth Gates hopes her team of scientist can help some corals adapt to climate change.
University of Hawaii Reef Biologist Ruth Gates. (

Earlier this month, Australian authorities issued a level three alert on the Great Barrier Reef. It's their highest response level and it comes after a series of alarming images showed coral bleaching had killed off huge swathes of the vital ecosystem. 

The threat comes as no surprise to University of Hawaii biologist Ruth Gates. Gates tells As It Happens host Carol Off, "We've observed and we continue to observe the death of coral reefs. In 1998 with the el Nino we lost 18% of the world's coral reefs in a single warming event. That's enormous."

Gates and her team aren't content to simply watch the reefs die. They've decided to engineer a sort of 'super coral' that will be able to survive in a rapidly warming climate.
Bleached coral (foreground) with living coral behind. (Courtesy of Ruth Gates)

Our perspective is, if we stop and stand back and just let things take their course we will have the most severe genetic narrowing, the loss of biodiversity, the collapse of reef systems. And I'm not willing to tolerate that. And so, as a biologist, I'm going to throw everything I can possibly throw at this problem and ask the question, can we come up with climate change adaptation strategies for corals that could potentially allow us to stabilize the situation while we take care of this bigger problem of fossil fuel burning." 

Gates calls her approach, "assisted evolution."

"What that means is accelerating what nature does on longer time frames and attempting to do that on a shorter timeframe. The reason to do that is that the climate is changing much more quickly than coral can keep up with. We do that through things like selective breeding where we will identify the most resilient or resistant corals on the reef and really breed those corals so that we have offspring that have the best genetic underpinnings for a future existence to stress."

She says she is also using experiments where corals are exposed to warming conditions of the future.

"This triggers the memories, the epigenetic pathways that will then ultimately be passed down from generation to generation, essentially bumping the performance standard up and up and up to actually keep pace with the rate at which climate is changing."