Meet the Scientists Helping Corals Adapt to Climate Change

Jun 08 2021

Behind every revolutionary research project is a revolutionary scientist. 

Inspired by optimism and driven by a desire to protect coral reefs facing unprecedented collapse, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has committed over $7 million toward supporting the revolutionary research of a group of brilliant scientists from across the globe. Each scientist and their team brings unique perspectives and research to the increasingly important field of building coral resilience in the face of ever-increasing ocean warming and acidification. 

Dr. CHRISTIAN VOOLSTRA, Konstanz University of Germany

For Dr. Christian Voolstra, working to save our coral reefs is not just a passion that drives his work - it's the right thing to do.

“It’s somewhat our moral obligation to this world, and me in particular as a father and husband, I feel that I have a special responsibility," said Dr. Voolstra. "Seeing amazing coral reefs and wanting to share this with your children leads you to knowing you need to do something about it."

That "something" involves finding nature's "super corals" and bringing the lab to the reefs through an experimental, portable system called the Coral Bleaching Automated Stress System (CBASS). This system puts coral fragments through a stress test by exposing them to varying temperatures to test their response to bleaching. Scientists can then see which coral colonies are resilient - and ultimately which ones could potentially adapt - to higher ocean temperatures.

To save corals from extinction, Dr. Voolstra believes you need two components - mass efforts around the globe to curb CO2 emissions and innovative scientific solutions that support adaptation to climate change.

"We need to break science out of its ivory tower," said Dr. Voolstra. "The time to act is now, and this project has the power to make a real-world difference. We need a large scale trans-disciplinary approach to give corals a winning chance to bounce back from climate change, and this is what [our work] is about."



Dr. Christian Voolstra (left) talks with a colleague. Photo courtesy Vincent Hilaire.

Inside the work

The CBASS system can simultaneously hold coral fragments from four different species and test their bleaching response to varying temperatures within only 18 hours, much faster than many current setups.
Dr. Voolstra's team follows a "nature does it best" approach. Their "super corals" represent solutions nature has evolved, which means they exist in harmony with the rest of the reef. 
"We think super corals hold the solutions we need," said Dr. Voolstra. "By learning where to find them, we better understand the environmental conditions that shape them, and this has huge implications for the designation of protected areas."

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DR. MADELEINE VAN OPPEN, Australian Institute of Marine Science

The seeds of Dr. Madeleine van Oppen's research began almost a decade ago, when the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation first invested in research by Dr. van Oppen and Dr. Ruth Gates. Dr. Gates passed away in October of 2018, but her legacy lives on at the Coral Resilience Lab - The Legacy of Ruth Gates.

Dr. van Oppen's research, once radical, provided the foundation for the human assisted evolution research funded in this most recent round of grants.

“[We were] two women with crazy ideas that had too many risks that were never going to work. Paul Allen thought otherwise, and funded phase one of a five-year research project.”

This path forward giving coral a helping hand to survive climate change, particularly ocean warming and acidification. The human assisted evolution of coral is pioneering research that gives Dr. van Oppen hope, but she warns that it isn't the solution to keeping corals alive.

“We also have to be realistic in that if, as a global population if we don't address climate warming I think there's very little hope for coral reefs, even with assisted evolution. Assisted evolution and other interim interventions should be seen as a temporary solution so that we can maintain enough coral biodiversity until climate change is halted and at a time when coral reefs can then hopefully recover naturally.”

Dr. Madeleine van Oppen (left) in the coral symbiont facility. Photo courtesy Marie Roman.

Inside the work

Algal symbionts are single cell algae that live within coral and help them survive. These microscopic organisms floating out of transplanted corals could be the key to generational coral survival. 

Part of this revolutionary human assisted evolution research includes conditioning these algal symbionts to withstand greater temperatures, and then reintroducing the symbionts to the corals.

This technique is increasing heat tolerance, but more importantly, when the corals are transplanted into the field they naturally expel some of the symbionts, which could end up in wild corals, creating new breeds of coral that can survive heat and hopefully the immediate impacts of climate change. 

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dr. crawford drury, Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology

Dr. Crawford Drury and the HIMB team are also building on the early coral research pioneered by Gates and Van Oppen. Dr. Drury and team are working to identify heat resilient corals surviving in the wild, and breeding these stronger corals in a lab.

Dr. Drury believes that this selective breeding can help support self-recovery and long-term reef health. The team's goal is to see how nature gets stronger, and to help it along on its journey. 

“The options that nature has for dealing with the challenges that are thrown at it are still relatively poorly understood. I hope that we can do our research and develop tools and a deeper understanding of what’s happening to effectively support what should be happening and to get out of the way of nature.”


Dr. Crawford Drury in the field. Photo courtesy Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology.

Inside the work

Can the strongest juvenile coral be trained to face warmer and more acidic future ocean conditions? That's what Dr. Drury and team want to understand. 

They are locating the strongest and most heat resilient corals in the field, corals that managed to survive when their neighbors did not, and breeding them in a lab. They expose them to anticipated future climate conditions to measure their improved resilience. The strongest of these juvenile corals will then be transplanted back into their homes, in hopes they can propogate stronger generations of reefs.  

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Dr. peter harrison, Southern Cross University in Australia

Perhaps if we want to restore our dying reefs, we need to focus on baby corals? That's the question Dr. Peter Harrison of Southern Cross University is dedicated to answering, because if reefs can't rebuild then they will disappear. 

"What keeps me awake at night is the thought that in the not too distant future we may lose even more corals and reef systems from our planet. We need to find ways to start restoring those reef systems, while we deal with the bigger problem of climate change at a global level.” 

Baby coral polyps don't have a great survival rate; most die just weeks after mass spawning events. One of the reasons for that high death rate is reefs that have been overtaken by seaweed, but Dr. Harrison believes that a little gardening could be an effective way of improving the chance a baby coral polyp survives. 


Dr. Peter Harrison at sunset. Photo courtesy Southern Cross University.

Inside the work

Dr. Harrison's pilot studies show promising results for how to support the survival of baby coral. 

The team is clearing large areas of algae, feeding new larvae in culture to produce millions more, and then settling them in new designs, like 3D tiles, essentially creating a comfortable nursery for baby corals to settle and grow. 

The coral survival rate is one of the big bottlenecks to reef sustainability and recovery, we need to overcome that bottleneck to successfully restore degraded reefs.

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