LEADING AN EVOLUTION IN CORAL
ARC Australian Laureate Fellow, Professor Madeleine van Oppen, is leading a research team based at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and The University of Melbourne, on a visionary research project—attempting to breed coral able to withstand climate change. Rising temperatures and acidification in oceans pose existential threats to coral reefs around the world, with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef suffering from extensive coral bleaching in 2016, 2017 and 2020. There is now great concern that the rate of environmental change is outpacing the natural capacity of corals to acclimatise, adapt and survive. Working with corals housed at the AIMS National Sea Simulator in Townsville, using cross breeding, microbiome manipulation and algae adaptation techniques, Professor van Oppen and her team are working against the clock to develop resilient breeds of coral that can survive in warmer ocean temperatures. By approaching the challenge from diverse directions, van Oppen hopes that they can ‘assist evolution’, by introducing more robust genetic stock into damaged coral reef ecosystems. The concept was first floated in a paper Professor van Oppen published in 2015 with Ruth Gates, a renowned coral biologist and conservation advocate from the University of Hawaii who sadly passed away in 2018. The duo progressed the idea with a $USD 4 million grant from the charitable foundation of the late Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft. The research team has begun field trials, with the introduction of baby hybrid corals growing on terra cotta tiles into the Great Barrier Reef in 2019, to monitor their survival and growth. By increasing our understanding of what makes coral resilient, and taking direct intervention, Professor van Oppen hopes to increase the chance of coral reefs persisting for future generations to enjoy.
“IT'S HUMANITY'S FAULT THAT CORALS ARE IN HOT WATER. NOW IT'S UP TO HUMANITY TO HELP THE CORALS KEEP UP,” SAYS PROFESSOR VAN OPPEN.
ADVANCING ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE AND MANAGEMENT
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