Hawaiian coral evolution sparks worldwide debate

Techniques used by scientists led by Ruth Gates and backed by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen are coming under the microscope. Jon Marcus reports from Hawaii

February 13, 2016
Marine biologist scuba diving and working underwater
Source: University Of Hawaii System

If the palm-fringed isle of Moku o Lo'e in the middle of Hawaii's Kaneohe Bay looks familiar, that may be because it was a setting for the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and appeared in the title sequence of the 1960s American TV sitcom Gilligan’s Island.

But some of the work being done by the British marine biologist who runs a busy laboratory here, the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology, is attracting criticism that almost makes it sound like H. G. Wells The Island of Dr Moreau.

The lab’s director, Ruth Gates, is not the only scientist practising selective breeding and conditioning – in her case of coral from the bay to see if she can speed its evolution to withstand the damaging effects of global warming. But she’s become a symbol of an international debate over whether people who study such phenomena should leave it at that, or involve themselves directly in the process.

The warming, rising and acidification of the world’s oceans is taking a particular toll on coral reefs. Nearly 20 per cent have already been lost or seriously degraded, according to the International Coral Reef Initiative, and 60 per cent are threatened.

With $4 million (£2.8 million) from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Foundation, Gates is harvesting the hardiest of coral from her bay, breeding it in the lab, and exposing it to the kinds of pressures caused by global warming, with plans, after two generations of this cycle, of transplanting a much hardier “super coral”.

“Why can’t we harness our knowledge?” she asks in her office in one of the island’s mazes of low-rise buildings. “Instead of documenting this, why don’t we harness our knowledge to affect the outcomes?”

Selectively helping

She is not the only scientist who is doing this. Marine biologists from the University of California are also engaging in human-assisted evolution, growing hardy coral from American Samoa in nurseries and replanting them in places where reefs have shrunk or died. Another project – the Coral Restoration Foundation – is doing something similar near Florida and in the Caribbean, growing coral resistant to warming for replanting later.

But some scientists say that decisions about such adaptation and conditioning should be left to policymakers and agencies that are responsible for conservation and management.

“In a sense we are all active participants, but I don’t think you’d really want to entrust or empower scientists with unfettered abilities,” says David Miller, a coral biologist at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia.

Regulators “have an important role to play in telling us what’s actually possible in terms of the real-world manipulation, real-world release of, for example, modified organisms. It’s our job to make sure they’re as well informed as possible”.

Ruth Gates, Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB)
University Of Hawaii System
Ruth Gates: ‘why don’t we harness our knowledge to affect outcomes?’

In Gates, critics have a singularly fascinating subject. Born in Cyprus, raised in Kent and educated at Newcastle University, she was drawn to marine biology by the explorer Jacques Cousteau. She did her doctoral work alone in Jamaica, fixing her own outboard motor on the boat she used to map colour variations in the reefs before global warming was widely understood.

After a detour working as a technician in a human fertility lab, she eventually got her own lab in Hawaii, where, among other tasks, she teaches martial arts to some of the people who report to her. Her work, and support from a famous billionaire, have helped to propel her to the kind of media attention academic scientists rarely enjoy.

She meets the controversy head on.

There’s an unspoken rule, Gates says, “that research scientists are the purveyors of knowledge and conservationists are the consumers of it. You see the science, you observe, you look for the points of weakness, and then you walk away.”

But the speed with which coral reefs are disappearing make that process too slow, she says. “I have watched some reefs disintegrate before my eyes. I just can’t bear the idea that future generations may not experience a coral reef. The mission is to start solving the problem, not just study it.”

Scientific reservations

Some of the reservations others raise about Gates’s work is purely because of the science. Large-scale transplantation is not economically feasible, Miller and others say, and as with other species, breeding coral to be resistant to the effects of global warming may narrow the genetic base and make it vulnerable to other things. It also unrealistically raises expectations about the likelihood of saving reefs. Gates, after all, is closely studying only a few strains of coral native to the bay.

“Is that going to really shift the needle, when what’s happening is on a global scale?” asks Steve Vollmer, a marine biologist at Northeastern University.

But Vollmer and others also say that what Gates is doing isn’t particularly unique. She’s just become a lightning rod for criticism.

“She’s not crossing any boundaries for me,” says Vollmer, just back from working in Panama to figure out why some species of coral are resistant to higher ocean temperatures. “The only thing groundbreaking about it is that they are trying to do the proof of concept on the back of Paul Allen’s money, and they’re doing a good job raising attention in the media.”

Meanwhile, Vollmer said, coral is evolving without help. “There’s a really powerful selection mechanism for selecting for disease resistance. It’s called disease,” he points out. “What we’re seeing naturally due to human-induced global climate change is as strong or stronger a selection event than what we can produce in the lab.”

But Gates responds: “Realistically, as climate change intensifies, the rates are going to be so fast that there’s no way nature can keep up.”

And she adds: “Can we take the risk of doing nothing? I would argue we cannot. This is a turning point. It’s empowering to get behind a solution. We’d have to be idiots to stand back for the next 10 years and hope for the best.”

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