Some corals, called "super corals," are more resistant to temperature changes and bleaching. Discover how scientist Ruth Gates began a "super coral" breeding program to create more resilient reefs.
Scientists Breed a New Generation of "Super Corals"
Published: May 11, 2021
RUTH GATES: So, the dark brown coral in the bucket right now, we affectionately term super corals. And we call them that because they are unaffected by the conditions or the stress that is causing other corals, immediately adjacent to them, to pale and whiten and show signs of very severe stress.
So, once we can understand what is different between the super corals and the weak corals, our goal is to develop, or breed, more super corals that we can use to restore damaged reefs.
NARRATOR: Now, Ruth’s team prepares to breed the super corals that have survived bleaching events. Corals here are spawning tonight, and researchers will act as matchmakers.
RUTH GATES: If we’ve got a really good performer over here and over here, let’s not leave it to chance that their eggs and sperm would meet. Let’s bring them together and make sure they do.
So, that’s accelerating a natural process, really, having a slight human intervention to make sure we breed the best, moving forward.
NARRATOR: As night falls, Ruth’s team prepares for one of the most phenomenal events in all of nature. Each coral species spawns at a very specific moment, timed with seasonal temperatures and the moon.
RUTH GATES: Corals can sense the moon, and they will release their eggs and sperm within five minutes of a particular phase of the moon. It’s an astonishing thing.
NARRATOR: Once spawning begins, it won’t last long. Researchers use red lights, so they won’t disturb the corals’ ability to sense lunar cues. The team must work quickly to collect the precious sperm and eggs. An entire year’s work is on the line.
Corals are fixed in place, so they release gamete bundles containing their egg and sperm into the water column. These buoyant bundles rise towards the surface, creating an underwater blizzard, where fertilization begins.
The gametes from selected coral are caught in the nets. Lids secured, researchers head back to the boat.
SCIENTIST: Yeah, we have everything.
NARRATOR: The team combines the coral gametes according to a predetermined plan, breeding them for their strengths.
Time will tell if tonight’s efforts were successful, but past years of collecting, breeding and observation have already paid off, as lab-reared super corals can tolerate warmer temperatures.
RUTH GATES: How do we move the needle and scale to many different places? Because the corals that do well in Hawaii don’t all live, say, in the Great Barrier Reef.
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