Beat the heat: helping corals withstand increasing ocean temperatures

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1. SUMMARY

Queensland’s reefs are under pressure from increasingly warm seawater. Corals live in a relationship with tiny algae that provide the coral with most of their food. When temperatures become too warm this relationship breaks down, causing the algae to be lost from the coral animal, turning it white. This is known as coral bleaching. If left without algae for too long, corals die.

To combat coral bleaching and wide-scale reef collapse, my research is developing new restoration technologies to help corals resist higher temperatures and help prevent them from bleaching. My research incorporates two techniques; the use of selective breeding and the use of probiotics to give helpful algae to corals. The goal of these methods is to enhance the survival of corals along the Great Barrier Reef and provide key information for coral conservation and management to ultimately protect Queensland’s reefs and improve their health.  

2. BENEFIT

The Great Barrier Reef is a national icon and contributes $3.9 billion a year and 33,035 jobs to the Queensland economy. Notwithstanding the deep, unquantifiable, sociocultural value of the Reef to Australia and the global community as a World Heritage Site; the ecological value provided in services like storm protection to coastal communities is significant. However, in recent years, mass coral bleaching has led to the death of millions of corals across thousands of kilometres of the Reef, seriously jeopardizing jobs in tourism, fishing, and recreation and putting at risk the ecological and spiritual value of the Reef. 


Queensland has the best managed reef system in the world. However, managers currently only utilize conventional practices like marine-park zoning and water-quality regulation, where genetics-based restoration practices are still absent due to a lack of information about their application, benefits, and risks. The goal of my research is to fill these knowledge gaps by developing and testing novel genetic technologies to enhance the heat tolerance of corals. Managers can then use these technologies to help protect the Reef. These restoration technologies will not only be beneficial for Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, but for reefs worldwide. Therefore, these advances have the potential to position Queensland as a world leader in reef science and restoration through knowledge transfer to new industry partners and collaborations with international reef scientists and managers.


In this research, we are developing two methods that aim to prevent coral bleaching and enhance coral survival to ocean warming. One method involves interbreeding corals from warmer reefs with corals from cooler reefs to produce coral babies that have a temperature advantage under warming conditions. Another method involves giving corals probiotics made from beneficial mixtures of the corals’ algae to help them withstand or recover from the stress of high temperatures. Laboratory results have been promising for both of these novel methods. We have been able to increase heat tolerance by up to 26x in selectively bred baby corals and decrease bleaching mortality by 58% in adult corals when given specific probiotics. We are now looking at new ways of packaging these probiotics to get them to corals more efficiently and at higher doses.


These next-generation restoration methods therefore have the potential to protect and improve coral health as sea temperatures increase. We are working with Reef mangers to develop safe and comprehensive risk assessment protocols for the deployment of these genetic technologies. We are also working alongside Traditional Owners to incorporate these methods in a socially responsible manner to acknowledge the rich cultural significance of Sea Country into restoration planning.


This research has the potential to defend the Reef against further degradation, rendering significant environmental, economic, and social benefits for Queensland. By protecting the Reef against future loss and helping it to recover more quickly, we can safeguard the thousands of jobs and families that are reliant upon the health of the Reef for their livelihoods and protect this national and iconic treasure for generations to come.

3. ENGAGEMENT

I have a strong track-record in communication and community outreach activities across a variety of formats with the aim of spreading knowledge of the STEM fields. My hope is that this communication and engagement will help encourage future interest and participation in marine sciences and conservation. It also contributes to building Queensland’s strategic positioning as a world leader in science.

 

I have had the opportunity to engage with scientific and non-scientific audiences through TV and radio interviews where research can be promoted to a wide, non-academic community. I have conducted interviews with a range of media outlets including National and Australian Geographic, ABC Off-track and ABC North Queensland. I have also filmed interviews for international documentaries, including The Nature of Things (Canada), NDR and GEO Special Magazine (Germany), BBC Live England, and Bloomberg Media. I also recently filmed an invited educational module about coral genetic diversity for curricula development for the Ocean School, an educational production by the National Film Board of Canada and Dalhousie University. I also use Twitter to engage and promote topics more broadly, which are well supported. Engagement with the public regarding genetic technologies in this way will help foster a better understanding of the science and promote the adoption of appropriate technologies.

 

A majority of my recent engagement has been with Traditional Owners. In 2019, I organized the Northern Great Barrier Reef outreach workshop which brought together seven Traditional Owner groups, the Marine Park Authority, Australian Institute of Marine Science, South Cape York Catchments, Water Monitoring Partnership, and Local Marine Advisory Committee. Participants shared the science being conducted in Cape York and I gave an outreach talk on genetic technologies. My passion in this space started when I was the inaugural Assistant Coordinator for the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders in Marine Science program, where I helped foster partnerships with Townsville schools using activity-based curriculums. As a volunteer interpretative guide at Reef HQ Aquarium, I also spoke with visitors about the animals on display and threats facing the Reef.

 

I also promote research to the wider scientific community through giving talks at conferences and publishing manuscripts in peer-reviewed journals. I have published 17 articles (76.5% and 11.8% first and last author) and was an invited lead author on one of the premier books on coral bleaching. Recently, I have also been invited to give four talks at high-profile conferences on genetic restoration technologies, including at the National Academies of Sciences in the USA and the Gordon Research Conference in Hong Kong.

 

Now as a National Geographic Explorer (2019- 2020), I am very excited to utilise my expertise in genetic restoration technologies to engage with people about the development of a socially-responsible plan for genetics-based restoration techniques on the Reef. My hope is that this STEM communication and engagement will help encourage future interest and participation in marine science conservation, especially during this critical time when Reefs need as much help as they can get.

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Postdoctoral Research Fellow Australian Institute of Marine Science

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