In the last two years, the Great Barrier Reef has lost 50 percent of all its corals. The 2016-2017 disaster was just the latest in a series of three global coral bleaching events that have been slowly decimating reefs since the 1980s, leading so far to the destruction of 27 percent of the world's reefs. As conservationists are scrambling to find innovative ways to combat the effects of widespread coral bleaching, a new solution might present itself in the field of genetics.
Stanford Medicine has announced that a project is underway to explore the future potential of gene editing so that it one day might be used to save the dying corals. The idea behind this project is to understand "what genes are critical to coral biology," explains Stanford geneticist Phillip Cleves.
"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."
His was the first-ever successful attempt to use CRISPR-Cas9 on coral, Stanford Medicine revealed, noting that the study offered conclusive evidence that the gene-editing tool "could be a potent resource for coral biologists."
"Up until now, there hasn't been a way to ask whether a gene whose expression correlates with coral survival actually plays a causative role," Cleves said.
"There's been no method to modify genes in coral and then ask what the consequences are," he pointed out.
And that is just exactly what Cleves is trying to achieve. He stated that he views his study as an "early blueprint" for the type of work that can be done in the future in order to give corals a helping hand.
For now, the geneticist is trying to find out whether the coral genome contains genes that can help these animals establish new colonies or that perhaps can make them more resistant to the rising ocean temperatures.