Scientists are matchmaking corals from different colonies in a process called “assisted gene flow.” Making heat-tolerant hybrid corals could ensure their survival in the face of climate change.
Assisted Gene Flow for Saving Corals
Trying to conserve and save coral reefs is an ongoing effort in many parts of the world. Not long ago, we reported on scientific experiments aiming to enhance coral populations by enriching their acoustic environments. Today, we take a look at another significant project: CORALASSIST. It relies on disciplines such as evolutionary biology, restoration ecology, and proteomics. It aims to breed and create corals that are resilient to extreme heats and, consequently, bleaching.
The idea behind the Assisted Gene Flow is to breed corals from different colonies that have a natural tolerance to high heat. Then, they would plant the hybrids on reefs to enhance the reefs’ resistance to climate change and lower the impact of bleaching events.
How Does the Assisted Gene Flow Procedure Work?
The process takes quite a while, but the results are promising, according to Dr. James Guest, coral reef ecologist from Newcastle University, UK.
- First, they harvest approximately six branches from a tagged adult coral colony (a non-invasive procedure for the reef);
- Then, they submit the branches to a 4-6 weeks heat experiment. They expose the branches to progressively increasing temperatures (1°C-4°C), mimicking a regular heat stress event on the reef;
- After the trial, they can identify which corals resist heat stress the best, and which do on;
- Finally, they breed the heat-resilient corals across colonies.
- The offspring of crossed corals get to develop in special nurseries before experts plant them back into the reef.
According to Dr. James Guest, the scientists already successfully achieved 28 different crosses from 8 separate colonies. Considered a success, the project aims to increase reefs’ resilience to climate change and extreme heat events.
While we should all do something to curb climate change’s effects, the CORALASSIST project addresses the global problem of coral reef bleaching.
In an interview for Phys.ORG, Dr. James Guest explained the Assisted Gene Flow procedure and importance:
“The definition I’ve used (of assisted gene flow) means basically the movement of individuals – for example very small baby corals – between populations. It can also mean taking some individuals who have a particular trait, propagating them so that you have more of them and planting them back within the population so that the frequency of that particular trait increases within the population. We thought that with (our project) CORALASSIST that we could combine moving or transplanting corals with selective breeding, and see if we can basically increase the number of individuals within a population that are more tolerant to heat stress.“
Could the Assisted Gene Flow Solve the Issue of Coral Bleaching?
Just as the scientists working on the project say, there is no miracle recipe when it comes to saving coral reefs. The root of the problem is still climate change. Carbon emissions, fossil fuels, water pollution, over-fishing, and other activities represent a constant danger to coral populations. Unless we tackle these issues, all such projects have limited effects. Nevertheless, the Assisted Gene Flow procedure and the CORALASSIST project aim to become a theoretical and practical framework for future actions that policymakers need to take.
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