Speeding Up Coral Evolution

Scientists are speeding up coral evolution to resist climate change
Hawaii, Day Octopus (Octopus Cyanea) Laying On A Bed Of Coral. Getty/Dave Fleetham / Design Pics

 As Charles Darwin so deftly pointed out in his book , the main mechanism for evolution is natural selection. His original Theory of Evolution included an explanation for this natural selection. Essentially, the favorable adaptations acquired in a population by certain individuals will increase that individual's ability to survive long enough to reproduce and pass down that heritable trait. Eventually, the less desirable traits become fewer and fewer until they are bred out of the population for good.

While this is the main mechanism for evolution of species, it can also be manipulated through human interactions to possibly speed up the process. Humans have been performing artificial selection through breeding for thousands upon thousands of years. Even Charles Darwin used artificial selection to help gather more data in order to explain how natural selection worked. Now, some scientists are trying to use the principles of artificial selection to save coral reefs around Hawaii from the rapidly changing global climate.

Coral is a very delicate species that does not adapt well to changes in its immediate environment. In fact, coral has been on the endangered species list for some time already. Several scientists, including Dr. Ruth Gates of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, are experimenting with selective breeding and conditioning of coral to try to create a species that will be more robust and can resist the changes and pressures the rapidly changing climate is having on the endangered species.

Gates' work involves selecting the most resistant and healthiest of the coral in the reef around the island of Moku o Lo'e and taking it back to her lab to breed. Her aim is to create a breed of "super coral" that can withstand the artificial climate change she models in her lab. Once this hardy strain has produced a few generations of superior coral, it will be transplanted back into the reef to proliferate and hopefully withstand the rapidly changing climate of the waters around Hawaii.

While this is a noble cause and could very well prevent the extinction of coral in the long run, some critics are not supporting this type of research. Their argument is that those who are studying nature should not necessarily interfere and just let nature take its course as it has for the billions of years throughout Geologic Time. The interference of humans in nature is a hotly debated topic, whether the effects are negative (like the rapid climate change or deforestation) or positive (like Dr. Gates' aim to save the coral reefs from becoming extinct). Many believe it is fine for humans to study and gain knowledge about natural populations that can be applied to various scientific situations, but they are against interfering in the process. Others feel that if there is a way to fix the problems humans have caused, then it should be done to right the balance of life in nature.

Another group with an opinion on the matter thinks that there should be an attempt, but it needs to be regulated by an outside group like the government or official conservation agencies that can oversee the process and agree on its ability to help and not harm. This particular group of people argue that scientists are the base of knowledge and should help when possible, but should not be without oversight to go ahead and just do whatever they want within their capabilities.

They believe that long term effects need to be explored and weighed before any sort of final conclusion about the experiments can be made.