Can GMOs save the fragile coral reef ecosystem?

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The controversial practice of “environmental engineering” should be adopted in the battle to save the world’s coral reefs from the devastating effects of climate change, scientists have argued.

In a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Tuesday, researchers from Australia and the U.S. said drastic measures including genetic modification should not be ruled out as biologists work to preserve vulnerable coral reefs.

The researchers have called for all options to be considered, including the controversial practice of genetic manipulation, selective breeding and accelerating the rate of evolutionary change of some key reef-building coral species.

Coral geneticist Madeleine van Oppen from Townsville’s Australian Institute of Marine Science said while the techniques were commonly adopted in industries such as livestock and forestry, it was rare in the wild.

“I think it is a last resort,” she said. “But you have to develop the biological tool kit now because it will take some time, so we have to test the various options before it is too late.”

Corals are particularly sensitive to global warming, as cyclone activity increases in frequency and intensity, ocean surface temperatures warm and water becomes more acidic.

The boom in crown-of-thorn starfish numbers, destructive fishing and terrestrial run-off are also affecting coral reef health.

Half the Great Barrier Reef’s coral cover disappeared in the 27 years to 2012, previous research has shown, and less than a quarter could be left within a decade unless action is taken.

Van Oppen, a lead author on the paper, said “environmental engineering” techniques for building coral reef resilience also included breeding a new generation of corals to be more tolerant of certain conditions and selective breeding.

Read full, original article: Genetically modified coral could help save reefs, report argues

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