Newcastle University May Save Reefs by Breeding Corals

Tropical fish with coral, clams and anemones in the background.

Newcastle University scientists aim to find out if selectively bred corals can help save reefs that have been damaged by climate change.

Higher sea temperatures can cause coral bleaching, where they lose the friendly algae that give the corals their colour and supply some of their nutrients. Over time, bleaching can starve the coral. So, a team from the university’s School of Biology has secured a £2.1 million grant from the European Research Council to investigate whether selectively bred corals might help reefs withstand this process.

The team will conduct a study to find out if corals selectively bred to tolerate higher sea temperatures could be transplanted in large numbers onto reefs damaged by coral bleaching.

John Bythell, professor of coral reef biology, said, “During coral bleaching events it is possible to observe healthy colonies next to bleached colonies, suggesting that some corals are better adapted to higher temperatures.”

“This means that one possible solution could be to selectively breed corals that can withstand higher than normal temperatures and successfully pass this on to offspring.”

The team plan to undertake a five-year project, entitled Assisting Coral Reef Survival in the Face of Climate Change. The project will be the first large-scale, long-term assessment of whether the capacity to withstand higher temperatures can be passed on to offspring without other characteristics such as growth rates and reproductive success being compromised.

If this turns out to be the case, the team will refine a mass-transport technique, already developed by Newcastle University, to get the selectively bred corals to the reefs.

Professor Bythell said, “Even well-managed reefs can be damaged by increased sea temperatures, which are occurring on regional and global scales.”

“This means innovative solutions are needed to help coral species adapt to new environmental conditions.”

“If we can select more tolerant corals and then successfully and cost-effectively transplant them, this would make reef restoration projects much more sustainable in the longer term, pre-adapting the reefs to future climate change impacts.”

Coral reefs are among the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, providing habitats for up to two million species as well as livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people in over 100 countries.

Corals function a bit like trees in a forest, creating a complex habitat that helps support an incredible amount of biodiversity. But since the 1980s, many coral species have suffered bleaching due to higher ocean temperatures resulting from climate change.

It is estimated that – through jobs, food and tourism – coral reefs are worth $375 billion a year to the world economy.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, 20% of the planet’s coral reefs have been effectively destroyed, with another 20% at immediate risk of collapse and a further 20% at longer term risk.

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