As has been known for a long time now, the rising ocean temperatures have been causing the bleaching and death of coral reefs around the world, with the Great Barrier Reef losing as many as 29 percent of its reefs in 2016 alone.
With climate change-mitigating efforts stalling (and considering the delayed effects of the changes which had already taken place), scientists are turning to genetic engineering as the last-ditch attempt to halt or at least slow down the process of dissolution.
In a paper published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (or PNAS), a group of researchers document their application of the cheap and precise CRISPR/Cas9 technology invoked for the purposes of introducing potentially beneficial mutations in cells of the Acropora millepora species of coral, which is highly abundant in the Great Barrier Reef.
The experiments, carried out in the lab to prevent any unforeseen negative consequences, were focused around knocking out three genes in a number of fertilised A. millepora eggs: one that codes for a green fluorescent protein, one that encodes a red fluorescent protein, and one that encodes for fibroblast growth factor (FGF).
The latter mutation was designed to alter the way the coral grows, while the colour-coding genes were eliminated in order to make sure the genetic alterations have taken hold.
While the researchers were able to confirm that the mutations were incorporated into the genome, they’d also found that coding in these corals takes place in more than one site, resulting in less colourful, yet still visibly coloured organisms.
“There is an urgent need to develop the genetic methods that will allow rigorous testing of hypotheses about gene and pathway function in various aspects of coral biology,” wrote the authors in their paper. “The powerful CRISPR/Cas9 approach should greatly facilitate such efforts, and we report here encouraging results in this direction.”
The mutations induced by the team lasted through several cycles, which isn’t quite enough to save the reefs, but it at least proves the approach could be developed further, such as in efforts to help coral mutate heat-tolerant alleles, which have been found to be on the rise, yet are thought to be too slow to help coral adapt to the rapidly changing marine environment.