Friday, May 23, 2014

HIMB in the News--Designer Reefs

Coral reefs are known to be beautiful underwater landscapes that serve purposes far exceeding simple tourist attractions.  Reefs are natural barriers of the sea that help reduce exposure to waves, floods, and storms on the shore line and mainland.  However, this delicate ecosystem is in distress.  Due to climate change and ocean acidification, many coral reefs face a drastic population crisis.  The ocean’s temperature is increasing at a more rapid rate along with a decrease in the acidity level.  These changes are due to an increase of carbon in the atmosphere.  The higher the temperature and the lower the pH of the ocean, the harder it is for the coral to survive.

The reefs of Ofu Island in American Samoa are a natural laboratory for studies of coral heat resistance.

Recently, however, there have been discoveries made that show a coral’s ability to acclimate to temperatures outside of its comfort zone.  It has been found that some coral are able to alter their physiology in order to live in warmer waters.  Since the evolution process takes years to establish useful adaptations, this acclimation process acts as a middle man between the organism’s current state and its future evolved state.  An article in Nature calls it a coral's “first line of response” to these environmental changes. 


But, the rate of evolution and the changes occurring in the environment are so out of sync that these “first line of responses” may not be enough to save the coral alone.  This is where Designer Reefs come in.  Here at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, Dr. Ruth Gates is looking into cross-breeding coral reefs.  Essentially, she is planning to take the reefs that have already adapted to the changing environment and incorporate those specimens into the reefs that have yet to acclimate.

Some people remain skeptical about human involvement in the natural process of evolution.  Skeptics believe that when you interfere, you are disrupting the natural processes of the ecosystem, but as Dr. Gates states, they will not be introducing foreign DNA into these coral populations.  Also, human impacts are some of the main reasons coral are in this precarious situation  Therefore, this research is trying to remedy those effects and give the coral a fighting chance in a rapidly changing environment.

Take a look at this excellent article highlighting HIMB's Gates lab - Click on: Could 'Designer Reefs' Save the Ocean from the Huffington Post

Or see this broader article in the journal Nature: Corals use multiple tricks to adapt to hotter seas

Kenzie G.

More about ocean acidification:

1 comment:

  1. Very optimistic future for our reefs!! Great info.