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Gene-editing tools: a possible route to save endangered coral reefs

All coral reefs will virtually disappear by the end of this century if temperatures rise 2oC in comparison to pre-industrial levels, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The fact that rising global temperatures and ocean acidification pose major threats to coral reefs worldwide is not new. However, scientists are looking for solutions beyond the usual reduction of water pollution, fishing and tourism or even invasive species eradication.

Scientists in Australia are trying to create breeds of coral that can withstand underwater heat waves, re-engineering corals with techniques as old as the domestication of plants and as new as the latest gene-editing tools. Last year, CRISPR-Cas9 was successfully used on corals for the first time, as scientists were trying to identify genes that control coral resistance to heat and stress.

Scientists have not discarded the possibility of using genetic modification techniques as one of the routes to address the impacts of climate change on coral reefs, not only in Australia but also in the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia. Line Bay, a coral geneticist at AIMS, recognized that this could face resistance just like other proposals to release modified organisms into the environment. However, this should not stop research, since the situation is critical and new solutions are desperately needed.

To learn more about how innovation can potentially save coral reefs visit ScienceMag.

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