Tourism company funds expedition to discover ‘super corals’

A 21-day research exhibition conducted by the Great Barrier Reef Legacy, partly funded by tourism company, the Northern Escape Collection will seek to identify corals that best coped with bleaching events that occurred across the northern parts of the Great Barrier Reef.
By Angela Heathcote August 14, 2017 Reading Time: 3 Minutes Print this page

A PRIVATE TOURISM company will fund a 21-day research expedition conducted by the Great Barrier Reef Legacy (GBRL) to search for ‘super corals’ in the northern parts of the reef that were devastated by two waves of coral bleaching in late 2016 and early 2017.  

The GBRL will be offering ten free spaces on the luxury research vessel, provided by the Northern Escape Collection the owners of the Orpheus Island Lodge near Townsville and the Daintree Eco Lodge— to the world’s top marine scientists, including the ‘coral godfather’ Charlie Veron, author of the book, Corals of the World.

The tourism company also contributed $160, 000 to the project. “The GBRL is now also being funded by tourism operators showing that this industry is leading the way in how the reef is understood and protected,” Dean Miller, the director of science and media for GBRL told Australian Geographic.

The kind donation heralds a change in the tourism industries attitude towards the challenges faced by the Great Barrier Reef, which in recent times have been played down due to the risk to tourism in the area.  

“Tourism is the number one economic driver in revenue derived from the reef, the number one way in the way the reef is valued, and now is its biggest driver in terms of research and conservation,” Dean added.

Dean explained that the information gathered during the trip will be made easily accessible. 

“We will have an education and communication team on board that will be working directly with schools and outreach programs through live crosses, videos, photos and blogs and interactive sessions. People will be able to communicate direct with the researchers directly from the reef,” he said. “For us its all about the sharing of information.”

The expedition marks the first time marine scientists will get a close-up look at the devastation caused by this year’s bleaching events and are hoping to identify which species of coral have best survived.

Corals with the ability to tolerate environmental extremes are also known as ‘super corals.’

“If you identify species of corals that appear to be resistant to bleaching – then the question is why. If you can find that out … it’s a step towards a cure or a way forward,” Charlie Veron told the Guardian.

What exactly are ‘super corals’? 

The possibility of preventing coral bleaching by genetically enhancing key microalgae genes to better tolerate stress from ocean warming continues to be calculated by scientists.

The first component critical to ones ability to comprehend this process is the microalgae, Symbiodinium.

Symbiodinium is among the groups of microalgae known as zooxanthellae, which are harboured by coral in a symbiotic relationship during which the algae gains shelter and nutrients from the coral and in turn provides the coral with as much as  90 per cent of its energy needs. When ocean temperatures become too warm, corals expel these symbiotic algae in a stress response that leads to coral bleaching.

Since the global phenomenon of coral bleaching began destroying huge areas of the world’s reefs, scientists have been trying to understand microalgae like Symbiodinium— its diverse thermal tolerances and genetic variation —but have been held back by “incompatible genetic engineering methods” that make it difficult to analyse and understand the algae, says Rachel Levin a University of New South Wales PhD student, who authored the study Engineering Strategies to Decode and Enhance the Genomes of Coral Symbionts, published last month in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology.

“Very little is known about Symbiodinium, thus very little information is available to improve coral reef conservation efforts,” she explained. “Symbiodinium is very biologically unusual, which has made it incompatible with well-established genetic engineering methods.”

Rachel’s study will provide a map of how to go about genetically engineering Symbiodinium, which could be used to slow-down coral bleaching by creating ‘super-algae’ and ultimately ‘super-corals.’  

However, it’s important to note that generally ‘super-corals’ refers to both genetically enhanced coral or a coral that can naturally tolerant extreme conditions.

Emma Camp, University of Technology Sydney coral expert said that while the findings in the paper are encouraging, there’s still a long way to go in genetically modifying corals to make them ‘super.’

“Extensive laboratory testing would be needed to assess how achievable this is, and also whether non-native Symbiodinium can be accepted by the coral host,” Emma told Australian Geographic. “Many corals only associate with certain Symbiodinium, so getting the host coral to up-take a genetically engineered Symbiodinium could be challenging.

“We know that shifting from less stress tolerant Symbiodinium to more stress tolerant Symbiodinium can negatively impact traits such as growth and fecundity of the coral; thus, these cost-benefit trade-offs would have to be considered.”

Emma argued that a combination of natural and man-made solutions will be needed to help preserve the world’s coral reefs. However, she explained, caution must be taken as both the work exploring extreme systems for stress tolerant corals and the genetic engineering route, are not a solution to coral bleaching.

“The source of the problem which is the emissions of carbon dioxide that are leading to warming sea surfaces temperatures has to be addressed if scientists stand a chance of saving the Great Barrier Reef, and other coral reefs worldwide,” Emma stressed.