Hawaii Researchers Try to Cultivate Corals for Warming Oceans

Assisted evolution employed in effort to breed a stronger coral.

Written by
John Virata

Ruth Gates, director of the  Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa is so concerned about the future of the coral reefs in Hawaii that she is undertaking a massive task of breeding coral stocks that she hopes are resilient to the warmer and acidic ocean waters of the future. As part of her research she is trying to understand why certain corals on a reef are bleaching while others on the same reef are seemingly healthy.Her team has been collecting frags of seemingly healthy corals that are right next to bleached corals and hope to breed these healthy stocks into corals that are also more resilient to warming ocean waters and ocean acidification.

The University of Hawaii is on the forefront of coral bleaching research from University of Hawai’i System on Vimeo.


Her research is considered so important that Paul G. Allen, Microsoft co-founder announced that his Vulcan Ventures initiated a $4 million investment into her research efforts in creating corals that can survive under future ocean conditions.

Gates has been working with coral and coral reef ecosystems for more than 25 years and is hopeful that her research will yield results.

Ruth Gates looks at a bleached coral alongside a healthy coral in Kaneohe Bay on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu.

 “I don’t know know that we can get a coral that is bred for the future, but I am going to throw everything at it,” Gates said.  

In addition to research funding from Vulcan Ventures, Gates’ team received a confocal microscope that came from a $1 million donation in 2009 from Pam Omidyar, a philanthropist and wife of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. 

The scientists are using a technique called assisted evolution, putting the strongest corals that they’ve collected off the reefs in Kaneohe Bay on the Windward side of O’ahu, into the most stressful but controlled situations. The idea is that these corals will be able to adapt to the harsher conditions and then pass along the traits to their offspring.

“The overall goal of this project, is to develop biological stocks of corals that are provisioned to withstand the ocean conditions of the future,” Gates told AP. The corals that Gates’ team is breeding will be transplanted back into Kaneohe Bay in 2016.

“The thing that we need to really stress is that if you see bleached corals, don’t step on them,” said Gates. “If you see someone allowing runoff to come into the waters and there is muddy water going over the reef, ask them to stop doing it or report it if its a developer. Do everything you can to keep the environment around the reefs as clean as possible and as untouched as possible.”


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