The more global climate change is acknowledged as a prominent issue, the more we fear for the survival of the ocean’s ‘rainforests of the sea’ – the coral reefs. For a long time, research was halted by the understandable fear of interfering in nature we didn’t understand. We worried that genetic interference of corals would be uncontrollable, and unforeseen consequences could arise.
Unfortunately, though many still feel this way, the state of the coral reefs today is in such dire danger that many researchers have gone ahead with designing and implementing ‘man-made’ corals into the seas. And it seems to be working.
Newly developed strains of algae have been made that can feed cross-bred coral, and protective bacteria are brought into the equation to counter the effects of warmer and more acidic oceans. The life cycle of a coral reef – from spawning to decomposing – is exceedingly complicated. Decades of research into this process are still not enough to fully understand how to truly replicate the amazing liveliness of a coral reef. Yet, with close to half of coral reefs gone and the threat of total extinction by 2050, its obvious why so many felt action was required.
The aim of most of these projects is to speed up the evolutionary process of coral reef development, rather that completely intervene. One such method includes adapting corals to cooler water temperatures, so that they can be hybridized with other species from warmer waters in a way that both are more resilient. Another slightly similar way is to work with the symbiotic algae (Symbiodiniium spp.) that provide a food source for coral animals. By increasing the algae’s thermal tolerance range, growth and photosynthesis rates can be greatly improved in the varying water temperatures, providing a greater source of energy to coral ecosystems than existing algae.
Another method is to interact with the probiotics that corals rely on. Just like gut microbes in human beings, corals can also benefit from specialized bacteria. A study in Brazil has been providing coral reefs with a variety of 10 types of bacteria that eat hydrocarbons – all in an attempt to help them survive oil spills. When trying to revive polluted marine ecosystems, we often turn to dispersing artificial materials to minimize damage. However, these can also prove just as toxic to the coral system we are trying to save. Introducing a consortium of bacteria has been shown to improve coral health by aiding the degradation of water-soluble oils and petroleum hydrocarbons. A similar technique is currently being studied that uses bacteria to ‘clean up’ the very reactive oxygen molecules produced when corals are under stress (which can start the coral bleaching process). Hopefully, one day we can simply spray on the bacteria mixture, strengthening and protecting the reef in one simple step.
Technically, these techniques do not merit the title of ‘lab-bred super corals,’ which is still a growing field accompanied by a whole host of naysayers. Part of this resistance is due to our lack of understanding. Genetic manipulation is still a hazy concept in the public’s eye, and scientists themselves are only starting to understand the full life cycle of spawning coral. In fact, the first research into replicating this life cycle was only published in November of 2017 by James Craggs. Although this was completed in a closed system far from the reefs in the tropics, it was the first successful inducement of coral spawning in an artificial environment.
“We really do need to intervene. We have caused this issue and morally I feel we should do something. There is an awful lot of work that goes on in reforestation: is this any different in principle?” – James Craggs
The primary goal of this research is to figure out what factors control the growth and spawning of coral reefs. Factors can range from anything from temperature and sunlight to the lunar cycle, and often occurs in the ocean in just one day of the year, making it incredibly difficult to study. From Craggs’ work, scientists have figured out how to create a spawning event every month – allowing for further research, but also presenting a path for immediate ‘reforestation’ of reefs. Corals can now be spawned on site, multiple times a year, using various new technology for in vivo construction.
One example of this technology is using concrete bases that grown corals on a tank-scale, which can the be wedged into the coral reefs without needing to attach them with adhesive, rope, etc. Another is commonly called the ‘badminton technique.’ Small, lab and/or tank-grown corals are created in the shape of a fan, which allows the coral to slowly descend through the ocean (like a badminton shuttlecock) and land safely on the coral reef. This is often used for reefs that have been extensively damaged by trawling, and do not need specific sites for coral growth.
I’ll end this article on a mixed note – half hope, and half worry. For even as we make leaps and bounds in discovering just what it means to take care of our reefs, its only a ‘stopgap measure’ until we solve the greenhouse gas problem. Rising temperatures will soon surpass our ability to quickly outsmart our problems, if left unchecked, and reef damage is on a global scale instead of the relatively smaller efforts conducted by restoration scientists. With more knowledge, however, always comes the possibility of a ‘miracle’ solution. At the very least, it has been found that only a small part of a whole reef is the source of spawning new larvae – perhaps we can still consolidate our efforts in a way that will have significant effect.