Coral species introduced in Great Barrier Reef to assist in adapting to climate change

coral bleaching
Just 1C to 2C of further warming in areas of the reef already under pressure could push it beyond what it can recover from. Photograph: Dan Dennison/AP

Coral species from different climes being mixed as a form of ‘assisted evolution’ to see if it will help them adapt more quickly to rising sea temperatures. The Australian government’s marine research agency is looking to genetically alter species of coral to help them cope with rising sea temperatures, as new modelling showed the coverage of living corals on the Great Barrier Reef could decline to less than 10% if warming continued.

Scientists at the Australian Institute of Marine Science have partnered with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology to look at how “assisted evolution” may help corals more quickly adapt to climate change. These studies are some of the first conservation-based, non-commercial uses of genetic modification.

A study modelling the prospects of the reef using a decade of data found there was a “very high likelihood” of coral cover plummeting below 10%, with corals replaced by sponges and algae as temperatures increased.

This would take the Great Barrier Reef beyond what previous studies suggested was a key “tipping point” that would threaten the reef’s ability to recover and grow. Such a reduction, the study suggested, could occur with just 1C to 2C of further warming in areas of the reef already experiencing pressure from other impacts such as fishing and pollution. This amount of warming is virtually locked in due to the current amount of greenhouse gas emissions.

Further information:

Guardian news article: Barrier Reef coral genetically altered in hope of surviving climate change

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/feb/03/barrier-reef-coral-genetically-altered-in-hope-of-surviving-climate-change

Journal article: Jennifer K. Cooper, Matthew Spencer, and John Francis Bruno In press. Stochastic dynamics of a warmer Great Barrier Reef. Ecology. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/14-0112.1

http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/14-0112.1

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