Preparing for Hotter Oceans
Could a small coral breeding experiment in Hawaii transform the world’s oceans, as climate change continues to ravage the underwater world?
I meet Dr Ruth Gates on a cloudy February morning in Kaneohe Bay, a sheltered cove on the southeast coast of Oahu. It is a Sunday, when Gates normally teaches karate, but today she is taking me to Moku o Loe (Coconut Island), a small island that is visible from shore but accessible only by speedboat.
Gates, who is in her mid 50s, greets me warmly and with the energetic and somewhat brisk manner of a person in perpetual motion. “I’m a doer,” she tells me later, though this seems readily apparent as much from her gusto as from her bio.
Gates is the director of the Hawaii’s Institute of Marine Biology and principal investigator at the Gates Coral Lab, and the president of the International Society for Reef Studies, as well as the author of more than 100 scientific papers and a frequent public speaker. But to think of her as a coral expert focused on her work only would be a mistake. Gates is a “big picture” person, who talks about everything from new technology to organisational culture and structures.
The boat ride takes us only a couple of minutes and we soon pull up to a small dock surrounded by mangroves. Coconut Island originally belonged to an eccentric billionaire who, in the 1930s, fashioned it into a private retreat.
More recently, it has served as a research facility for the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. The island’s location is ideal as the reefs beneath the sheltered turquoise waters are easily accessible to Gates and her team of researchers who have, for the past four years, been attempting to breed a strain of climate-change resistant corals.
In 2013, Gates was the recipient of Paul G Allen’s Ocean Challenge prize, a US$4-million endowment to pursue, (along with marine biologist Madeleine van Oppen in Australia) the idea that selectively breeding a tougher variety of corals – “human assisted evolution” as it is sometimes called – could produce a climate-adapted coral species and help to bring the world’s ailing reefs back to life.
The fundamental concern for Gates and her team is understanding why some corals survive bleaching events – when an environmental trigger such as rising ocean temperatures or increased acidity levels causes corals to turn white and stop growing – while others, sometimes just inches away, completely perish. “My whole career has been framed by this question of what makes one coral survive in conditions that kills another,” Gates says.
Gates’ career has also corresponded with a distressing period for the world’s reefs. Gates, who is English, began her studies at Newcastle University in England and then moved to Jamaica in the mid 1980s to continue her study of corals, focusing on the relationship between corals and their symbionts – the millions of tiny plants that live on corals. But the 1980s turned out to be devastating for corals in the Caribbean. Due to overfishing, pollution and development, nearly half of the Caribbean’s coral cover disappeared.
Gates continued her research at UCLA and then at the University of Hawaii just as climate change was beginning to threaten coral populations. The first major bleaching event came in 1998, when unusually warm waters killed around 15 per cent of corals worldwide. In the 20 years since, this trend has continued with bleaching events recorded in 2002 and again in 2016 as normal cyclical weather conditions are mapped onto increased base temperatures.
“The last El Nino created temperatures on reefs we’ve never seen before,” says Gates referring to the weather pattern that peaked in 2016 and temporarily warmed much of the surface of the planet, causing the hottest year in a historical record dating to 1880.
The typical approach to reef conservation has been to protect reefs from human activity, Gates says. “Usually we put a boundary around it and try to limit human behaviour within the boundary and say ‘if we just leave it alone everything will be fine’.” But look at what happened to the Great Barrier Reef and it is clear that this approach is no longer sufficient, she says.
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was the best-managed reef system in the world. The government’s Reef 2050 Plan had placed restrictions on port development, dredging and agricultural runoff. But the disturbance in temperatures in 2016 and again in 2017 was so significant that it washed out the effects of the managed areas. Gates uses the analogy of building a sea wall that withstands the everyday storm, but is easily overwhelmed by the 100-year storm.
“We didn’t expect to see this level of destruction to the Great Barrier Reef for another 30 years,” says Terry P. Hughes, director of a government-funded centre for coral reef studies at James Cook University in Australia, who recently published his findings in the journal Nature. “In the north, I saw hundreds of reefs — literally two-thirds of the reefs — were dying, and are now dead.”
Scientists estimate that 90 per cent of the world’s reefs will be gone by 2050, a conservative estimate by Gates’ measure. “The reality is that we don’t have much time”, she says. Within the next five to 10 years, she hopes to introduce corals into the wild that have been bred for resilience.
Corals only spawn in the summer and only at nighttime, which makes breeding them tricky, but the lab has been successful over the last two years. In an odd twist of fate two bleaching events occurred in Kaneohe Bay in 2014 and 2015, just as the research project was starting. This allowed Gates and her team to map how the coral performed to natural stress responses. “We were able to scurry out and label corals that either turned white or didn’t,” Gates says. The team has used this “living library” as a base, ultimately working only with the corals that were in non-affected areas. Gates calls these the “best performers”.
The best performers are resilient, the lab has discovered, due to three main factors. The first is base genetics – that the corals with hardy parents will be even hardier, Gates says. Also, since corals are consortium organisms (they are animals that have an intimate, obligate relationship with tiny plants that live on their tissues and even inside their cells), the partnership – who the corals partner with – influences their health. The third factor is epigenetics, the modification of gene expression. “If a coral has survived stress, and it sees that same stress in the future, it doesn’t respond as strongly,” Gates explains.
While this is the first time corals have been bred for specific qualities, it isn’t a new practice – selective breeding is used in everything from farming to our domestic pets. Still, when the project was first announced, the lab received an onslaught of criticism for intervening in wild marine systems.
Some accused the lab of ‘playing god’ while others called the project the ‘Monsanto’ of reefs. Another concern was the risk of reducing the diversity of the species, or of ‘super coral’ becoming the next Cane Toad. (Initially introduced to help control Australia’s beetle population, the Cane Toad has become one of the world’s most invasive species.)
Before heading to Coconut Island, I make a point of mentioning the coral-breeding project to people I meet. Reactions range from unease to indignation. “You just don’t mess with Mother Nature,” my Uber driver says on the road from Honolulu. I point out that it could be seen simply as a human solution to a human problem – we are the ones who pumped all of the CO2 in the atmosphere in the first place – but this reasoning doesn’t appear convincing.
Gates says the concerns she fields are largely emotional and not factual; that even if you weigh the risks of say, genetic narrowing against the risks of doing nothing, “it’s a no-brainer”. And it’s not just the corals themselves that stand to benefit if the project succeeds.
Corals provide physical and ecological support for a third of all marine life. This makes them what ecologists term as “keystone species,” as their health is vital for the well-being of countless other species, including humans. A quarter of fisheries are intimately linked to coral reefs where fish flourish, breed and feed. Some 500 million people worldwide therefore rely on reefs for food, income, protection or a combination of all three.
“This is the thing I think many scientists don’t understand,” says Gates. “Here in Hawaii our connection to the reef is tangential… but on a small Pacific island where 70 per cent of the protein is coming from the reef and the land that you live on directly protected by the integrity of the reef, that’s a whole different discussion. I feel it behooves us to step back from our ivory towers in all ways really and say we have an obligation to do things that stabilise reefs for places that depend on them intimately.”
It is useful to consider what a world without corals might look like. According to Gates, there would be tens of millions of displaced people competing for resources, a place where there is much more aggression and competition.
But some scientists have also questioned how the lab could possibly scale such an endeavour. The Great Barrier Reef is just a fraction of the world’s overall reef cover and spans an area almost the size of Germany. Putting corals out in Hawaii, an isolated archipelago, could take thousands of years to spread. But the lab in Hawaii is only part of a much bigger puzzle, Gates says. And scaling the project will involve developing a capacity that is relevant to different places – Hawaii for Hawaii, Australia for Australia, etc. “It’s not about making one super coral and moving it around the world.”
Scaling the project will also involve input from more than just scientists, Gates says. She describes her approach to problem solving as “reverse engineering”, envisioning the end goal, and then working backwards. “It’s a business level approach, like considering who are the players in the different parts of the pipeline who would be involved in bringing a product to market”.
So far this has involved everything from reaching out to oyster farmers, who have been a great resource in refining the lab’s selective breeding practices, to partnerships with satellite imaging companies like Planet Labs, which help to track local changes to reefs.
The lab is also partnering with the Carnegie Observatory and will soon be utilising a powerful camera built into an airplane that can show how many plants are alive inside a coral from the air. “Partnering with this amazing technology allows us to ask the question: can you identify high stress resistant corals from the air? That changes how we are able to scale it,” Gates says.
Thinking outside the box is not always encouraged in academia, particularly in the sciences, but Gates is adamant that the only way forward is to work across disciplines and share best practices openly. She is a strong supporter of the open science movement, in which scientific results, data, notes are all made available. The peer review process can take two years or more, she says, and “we don’t have that time”.
Gates’ ability to clearly communicate her goals to nonscientists has also proven useful in courting wealthy donors who want to understand in real terms the potential impact of the science. Midway through my tour of the island facilities - which include boating and diving facilities, wet tables and tanks with flow through seawater for holding and culturing corals and collection of larvae and gametes, and a molecular and microscopy lab - Gates shows me a state-of-the-art evolutionary genetics facility.
The facility has a custom-designed confocal microscope – the only one in the world – which uses live imaging to help scientists watch corals live in simulated future ocean conditions. “You can warm the stage, acidify the compartment and we can then watch the animal at a microscopic level,” Gates explains.
To design the microscope, the lab consulted with hospitals on the latest approaches to brain imaging – corals are similar to the human brain in density and the microscope uses technology modeled on MRI machines. The images produced wavering tentacles with spots of blue and green showing coral fluorophores.
Gates plans to use the images in classrooms so children can experience the beautiful and complicated world of stinging cells, polyps, and the symbiotic relationship between corals and their plant partners. (Using the images Gates has also launched another side project called Coral Interactive, an educational platform aimed at kids who play on their cell phones that features an episodic, interactive format designed to pique their interest in corals.)
The million-dollar confocal microscope was donated to the lab by Pam Omidyar, wife of Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay. “Pam loves science,” says Gates. Philanthropists like Paul Allen and the Omidyars understand that the project would never be funded through traditional channels, she says. And they understand that it’s going to take money for the project to succeed but it will save an enormous amount more.
It is difficult to attach a monetary value to the goods and services that rely on reefs, as some nations are entirely composed of reefs, but estimates run as high as US $375 billion a year. “We have a scale of problem that is arguably about an ecosystem that is in the billion to trillion dollar range, and yet, we’re treating it with hundreds of thousands to millions,” says Gates.
“There’s a huge discrepancy there.” Private funding of assisted evolution raises questions. Will donors expect a return on their investment? Are we headed to a scenario where the world’s wealthy own vulnerable species or entire ecosystems? Gates believes the only way to scale the project is commercially. “There has to be a revenue stream”, she says. “This will make it of value to people. I say let’s think about how we actually take this on board as a valued asset that we have to protect.”
With her attention focused on everything from the cellular health of corals to securing necessary funding (and teaching karate) I wonder if Gates ever finds time to sleep. Her answer reflects her view that time is limited. “I think we have to be doing everything now. People say ‘you’re insane’. It is insane but we only have this very short window and I don’t want to look back in 10 years and say I could have done so much more.”
This article appeared in the June 2018 issue of The Peak / SCMP