Rising sea temperatures have created a crisis for coral populations that are experiencing widespread bleaching events. Researchers are being forced to get creative with solutions to save reefs. A team in Australia may have an answer to the crisis with a technique they call “directed evolution.”
The process involves exposing a sample to specific climate change effects in a lab in the hopes of accelerating its natural evolutionary response to the threat. Researchers can then distribute these cultures to promote adaptations in wider populations.
Microalgae, which live inside coral, can become stressed and detach in warm temperatures; This is what causes beaching. The researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), the University of Melbourne and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) focused their attention on directed evolution in these microalgae. They found that microalgae exposed to heat in a lab adapted to better perform photosynthesis and had improved heat response.
In addition to its effectiveness in creating more heat-resistant coral, the microalgae can also be easily propagated in large populations, making it easier to distribute over large reefs.
Before the adapted microalgae can be introduced into native populations, the team must rule out all potential side effects and monitor the effectiveness of the adaptations over long periods of time. If the technique proves to be effective in aquaculture facilities, hopefully, it can be used to begin creating more climate change-resistant reefs around the world.