Gene editing may one day save coral reefs

Avatar By Joseph Scalise | 2 years ago

An international team of researchers has found that the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 may be able to help save coral reefs, according to new research set to be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To date, CRISPR has been used on a range of different plants and animals. However, the new study is the first time scientists have used it on coral. The team in the research implemented the technology by editing three genes — two that control coloring and one that regulates growth — in coral species growing in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. They manipulating the DNA early in the life cycle to make sure the changes would be as widespread as possible.

After disrupting the genes, the team analyzed the modified coral and found that the edits stuck all the way through to adulthood. That is key because it means that CRISPR can be used to successfully modify the organisms. That is a good starting point towards better understanding how editing may affect the species.

“Right now, what we really want to do is figure out the basic mechanisms of how coral works and use that to inform conservation efforts in the future,” said study co-author Phillip Cleves, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford, according to

Though the study is still in the early stages, scientists hope they will one day be able to use the technology to manipulate the organisms in a way that makes them more resistant to bleaching or global warming.

However, the next step is to simply build a database on coral genes and functions to better understand the basic biology. That could then shed light on coral life cycle and help researchers better understand how to modify them in the future.

“It would be nice to know if there were genes to make corals more or less susceptible to global warming,” added Cleves, according to TIME. “It could be that there are natural populations of coral that are more likely to survive and could help focus conservation efforts.”