Gene-hacking coral reefs could help save them from climate change

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Scientists want to use gene-hacking to save coral reefs.

The effects of climate change have an impact on many areas of life. However, few biomes are hit harder than coral reefs. High ocean temperatures can cause mass bleaching events that devastate reefs and, in turn, spell ruin for the creatures that live there.

Scientists have tried a variety of approaches in hopes of saving coral reefs. Now, research from the Carnegie Institution for Science suggests that a bit of gene-hacking could keep reefs safe from the effects of climate change.

The approach is possible thanks to researchers who discovered a gene in some types of coral that allows it to survive in warmer waters. They believe that injecting other species of coral with the gene could also help them survive.

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Coral Hacking

Researchers had to do a lot of work before they could even start experimenting with the genome of the corals in question. Unlike living things on land, coral is very particular about when it releases fertilized eggs.

When the water conditions are right, and only under the glow of a full moon, coral releases these eggs. Scientists had to wait for precisely the right time to collect them for the experiment.

That process alone took several years to complete. However, once the team got their hands on the eggs, the true research began. The Carnegie team identified the HSF1 gene as the sequence that lets some species of coral survive in hot water.

The researchers published their findings in the journal PNAS.

Putting the Plan into Action

Discovering the responsible gene was a major milestone. However, the work doesn’t stop there. The researchers believe that they could use the gene-editing tool CRISPR to inject fertilized coral eggs with HSF1.

From there, they hypothesize that they could dump the eggs atop existing coral reefs. The hope is that, over time, heat-resistant corals would grow and multiply to replace those that die off as a result of rising ocean temperatures.

However, there is a major problem with the strategy. Current Australian law bans the use of gene-editing tools like CRISPR. That makes the plan to save coral reefs illegal. Given the fact that most of the world’s coral reefs are located in Australia, the strategy is currently stalled.

Coral geneticist Madeline van Oppen, a commentator not associated with the original study, said, “Their [the gene-hacked fertilized eggs] release into the environment would, very properly, face rigorous regulatory and public scrutiny.”

While the regulations might seem like a hassle they are in place for a good reason. Once the gene-edited coral is released into the environment, there is no getting it back. Humans will have to live with the results—whatever they may be.

A recent example of a similar experiment backfiring occurred in 2018 when a team of Brazilian researchers released gene-hacked mosquitos into the environment. They released insects that were supposedly infertile in hopes of dropping the mosquito populations to address concerns related to malaria and Zika. Nearly a year later, the team found that the mosquitos in the area had not only survived but that they had gotten tougher in the process.

Yale researcher Jeffery Powell said at the time, “It is the unanticipated outcome that is concerning.”

At this point in time, humanity simply isn’t ready to deal with the consequences of releasing gene-hacked life into the environment. Though the prospect of saving coral reefs with CRISPR is enticing, more research needs to be done before it can happen.

In the meantime, humanity can focus on tested methods of helping the environment, such as limiting plastic pollution and cutting back on fossil fuel usage.

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