Scientists Are Using Technology that Edits Human DNA to Save the Great Barrier Reef

Monday, 07 May 2018 - 11:07AM
Genetic Engineering
Earth
Monday, 07 May 2018 - 11:07AM
Scientists Are Using Technology that Edits Human DNA to Save the Great Barrier Reef
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Pixabay Composite
Last week, we reported on Australia's $379 million plan to salvage the Great Barrier Reef, which has already lost about half of its coral (a full third of that in 2016 alone). Environmentalists have criticized the multimillion-dollar plan, saying that these measures – like killing crown-of-thorns starfish and monitoring the reef more closely – aren't facing the real problem: climate change.

The plan does, however, reportedly include funding for labs to use CRISPR (the same gene-editing technology that has been used to alter human DNA) to investigate how to genetically engineer a new generation of coral that will be able to handle warmer water – and now we know a little more about how that's going to work.

Previously, it sounded like labs were tasked with creating a kind of super-coral but, according to Phillip Cleves – the author of a new paper published in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences – creating a new species of lab-designed coral is both much less viable and much more complicated. Scientists instead plan to examine normal coral's genetic makeup to find out if there are genes that CRISPR can activate to make the coral resistant to warmer temperatures. According to Cleves: "Right now, what we really want to do is figure out the basic mechanisms of how coral works and use that to inform conservation efforts in the future. Maybe there are natural gene variants in coral that bolster their ability to survive in warmer waters; we'd want to know that."

Over the past half-decade, CRISPR has become one of the most promising tools in genetic engineering. It allows scientists to cut out portions of DNA and rejoin them in new combinations – usually in the embryonic stage of whatever organism it's editing. In the case of coral, CRISPR can be used on fertilized eggs to induce mutations that might be rarer in nature, but more favorable for survival. According to Cleves, "I want this paper to provide an early blueprint of the types of genetic manipulations that scientists can start doing with corals."

With 25% of the world's coral already dead in the water, reefs are going to need all the help they can get.

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