Science Begins To Look To Gene-Editing Tools Like CRISPR To Save Coral Reefs

Coral reefs have been devastated in recent decades by “bleaching” events caused by overheating oceans and other factors that kill off populations of coral. This week we learned that perhaps half of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has died. But some researchers are hoping new gene-editing tools like CRISPR – Cas9 may provide new insights and perhaps even the means to save corals from becoming the wreckage of  a warming world. The idea is to modify coral genes, but not to genetically engineer some kind of super-coral that could withstand a hot ocean. Leaving aside the ethical dilemmas of such a project, we currently don’t know enough about coral genes to achieve that kind of editing. Instead, says Phillip Cleves, Stanford postdoctoral scholar and lead author, CRISPR can be used to figure out how coral works and then use that data to inform conservation efforts in the future. “Maybe there are natural gene variants in coral that bolster their ability to survive in warmer waters; we’d want to know that,” he said.