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Inside sits an array of temperature- and pH-controlled tanks, sediment pumps, and stacks of high-octane computers. With all that tech, AIMS, a federally funded research center, can feel a little like NASA, if NASA were dropped in the middle of Australia and had its laser-assisted focus retrained on the oceans. High-security access badges: Check. Brilliant, high-powered scientists: Check. Evocative acronyms: So many checks.

The blocky brick building I come to at the end of 50 km of wallaby-strewn highway is an unassuming advertisement for the pie-in-the-sky projects unfolding inside. And so, with not a little cognitive dissonance, I sign my name on a standard-issue clipboard, and head to the world’s first Sea Simulator — the SeaSim, for short.

The 10,000-square-foot facility was built with the help of a $27 million grant from the Australian government (that’s $37 million in AUD) and the ambition to do the kinds of long-running, multi-variable experiments never before possible in run-of-the-mill marine biology labs.

The sprawling building contains an upper story with a double row of sealed rooms, each controlled by a monitor panel outside. In some, heavy-duty pumps suspend dredge sediment in tanks lit a deep dance-club blue; others hold aquariums full of crown-of-thorns starfish, nightmarish, spiny creatures whose unchecked appetites have decimated whole swaths of reef.

But downstairs, I find what I came for: an enormous, open-plan room that will hold the nine tanks of Madeleine van Oppen’s time machine.

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In February of this year, Madeleine van Oppen and her colleague Ruth Gates of the University of Hawaii published a paper suggesting that we start researching whether it’s possible for humans to help corals evolve to survive in a climate-changed world.

They called it “assisted evolution,” and it was a new approach to the same old problem: Corals already possess some innate resilience, but they cannot evolve fast enough to keep up with the accelerating pace of climate change. So let’s just make them evolve faster.

With a grant from the Paul-Allen-funded Ocean Challenge prize, covering a five-year-long research project split between AIMS and the University of Hawaii, van Oppen and company set out to see if that’s even possible. If they could breed new generations of corals that outperformed their parents, maybe they could identify the secret to coral resilience, be it genetic, microbial, or something else altogether.

And for that, they need corals. A lot of them.

AIMS staff unload samples of coral and sand from the Great Barrier Reef, to be used in SeaSim experiments. (Photo credit: Grist | Amelia Urry)

The boat comes in in the afternoon. Van Oppen drives me down to the port, where researchers with a heavy crane are lifting pallets of stacked plastic bins from the deck of the dive boat into the back of a truck. It’s sunny, so they work fast — these corals have come from Davies Reef, a nearby patch of the Great Barrier, and they are likely feeling the heat.

As he sloshes excess seawater out of the bins, research manager Neal Cantin explains to me what they’ve brought back: entire tubs of sand and sediment, heaps of worn-down and overgrown old coral skeletons (or “live rock”), some algae and sponges for a different experiment, and, of course, about 80 coral colonies for van Oppen’s experiment.

The corals are the main event, but the sand and sundry are important, too. With all these ingredients — and the ambient microbial communities they host — the researchers can create a rough copy of the reef the corals just left. Then, using data from a weather tower right over Davies Reef, they can adjust the water temperature throughout the day to match natural conditions as closely as possible.

I hitch a ride back to the SeaSim with a couple of tubs of coral and live rock. There, in the largest chamber of the Sea Simulator, Cantin and a graduate student are arranging the corals in three long tanks, flushed with seawater and lit with full-spectrum LEDs that mimic sunshine. These tanks will serve as an indoor ocean to these corals for the next five years, or longer.

Eventually, there will be nine tanks in the enormous, hangar-like room, grouped by threes: One trio will be treated with water heated and cooled to match the real-time temperature data from Davies Reef. The pH levels will match normal variations the reef might experience over the course of an average day, becoming more acidic at night, in the absence of photosynthesis. The second set will have its water heated and soured to match the ocean conditions we are predicted to experience by midcentury. The third will experience the most extreme conditions, with temperatures and acidity mimicking what we might see by 2100 if climate change is left unchecked.

All the corals will spend a few months acclimating to these new normals. The scientists expect many of them will become stressed, even bleach — but that’s only the beginning. What they really want to find out is how the kids do.

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The idea that humans might “assist evolution,” while it sounds wacky, is not truly anything that new. We’ve been changing the evolution of plenty of species, intentionally and otherwise, for about as long as we’ve been living in social groups. We “assist” evolution when we breed animals to perpetuate traits — milk production, for example, or docile behavior — that we find beneficial. We also can be said to assist evolution when we build environments, like cities, where certain animals, like pigeons, can find an ecological niche that never existed in the wild.

And we’re already applying selective pressures to coral. From global warming to ocean acidification, we’re changing the natural environment such that some corals are better adapted to survive than others. But evolution, while it’s happening, is not happening fast enough — and those selective pressures of ocean acidification and ocean warming run the risk of selecting reefs right out of existence.

Genetic selection is the most familiar kind of evolution, but the process of accumulating genetic adaptations is typically a slow one, reliant on chance mutations that occur in the right place at the right time. And corals only spawn once a year and grow slowly — which means there aren’t many chances to get things right.

So van Oppen’s group is looking to find the helpful mutations first, and maybe eventually find a way to spread them among wild corals. She is also looking for “epigenetic” changes in the corals, which is a catch-all term for the things that act on the genome, but are not a part of it.

For example, certain molecules may be attached to parts of an organism’s DNA, controlling whether a certain gene is turned on or off. If the gene is turned off, the cell won’t produce the protein that the gene codes for. In this way, an individual of a species may possess all the genes necessary to produce some trait without actually expressing the trait — all depending on its epigenetics.

These epigenetic markers have, in some cases, seemed to be heritable from a parent organism to its offspring. Van Oppen believes that epigenetics may hold the key to jump-starting corals’ non-traditional evolution in the face of warmer, more acidic waters. And if we can get a head-start on climate change by seeing what these changes might look like, maybe we can help nudge today’s reefs in the direction they need to go.

Baby Pocillopora growing up in the SeaSim tanks. (Photo credit: Grist | Amelia Urry)

Pocillopora — “poss-ill-uh-pour-uh” — acuta are pale, knobby lumps of coral, each about the size and shape of a head of cauliflower. They are fast-growing and branching, which makes them important reef building species, not unlike the more common Acropora.

But Pocillopora do one weird thing differently from most other corals. Instead of spawning just once a year, Pocillopora can reproduce asexually, releasing fully formed clonal larvae every month or so. In van Oppen’s lab, these larvae will settle onto little ceramic discs prepared by researchers and start to grow. Some of the baby corals will be moved around — the hot future larvae back to cold present-day tanks, and vice versa — to see how they do. Then this whole step will be repeated one more time, with a third generation of corals.

If the second- and third-generation of corals born and raised in future ocean conditions seem robust, that may tell us about how reefs could change in real-time. But even if corals are capable of keeping up with stressfully high temperatures and acidity, they still may change in ways that will fundamentally change the reefs themselves. The corals may not grow as fast, and they may reproduce differently. Larvae might have more trouble developing, or might develop differently.

And if the third generation of Pocillopora do end up stronger than their forebearers? The next step could be one of sci-fi proportions: to take these speed-evolved corals out onto the reef. These ultra-resilient corals could potentially be used to restore damaged reefs, while providing a set of genes that could pass some of that accelerated resilience on to the next generation.

The other experiments van Oppen’s team will be running have some similarly stunning implications. For example, if the scientists experimentally evolve a strain of symbiotic zooxanthellae that makes its coral host more resistant to bleaching, they could conceivably grow huge tanks of it, to dump on reefs during especially hot spells.

To be clear, these are all pretty long shots for a lot of different reasons. But even if they’re shown to work, is it a good idea?

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“It’s not up to us in the end whether it will actually be implemented,” Madeleine van Oppen told me, before I could even ask. Her experiments are such an early step on the road to large-scale reef engineering that she only spends a few minutes talking about the possibility. For van Oppen, the important thing is that we at least start asking the right questions. Answering them is a whole different research project.

What we definitely don’t want to do, she says, is to introduce new problems into a system we’ve already thrown out of whack. “We are very good at messing things up, changing this planet tremendously,” van Oppen says. “We’re also very innovative and intelligent, I suppose. We’ve come up with lots of good solutions.”

One thing is sure: We’ll have to put the brakes on climate change eventually, if we want to stave off disaster — on this point, everyone agrees. But even if we phase out greenhouse gas emissions in the next 10 or 20 years, the atmosphere and oceans will continue to warm for years after — so we need to be prepared to deal with that.

In a certain light, this crisis is nothing new for humans, says van Oppen: “We pollute the environment and then we clean it up. We develop bacteria that can digest hydrocarbons when there’s been an oil spill. It’s no different from other things where we clean up after the mess we have made. We do that all the time. Unfortunately, that’s how humans are.”

I’m starting to get the sense that if scientists, governments, and nonprofits can figure out how to engineer a better coral reef, it will be because, in the end, it’s easier to change nature itself than it is to change human nature.

 

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The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is a bucket list item if there ever was one. It’s the largest living barrier reef in the world, roughly the size of Italy, and one of the only biological objects visible from space.

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Home to some of the strangest (and most venomous) creatures in the ocean, the GBR is a poster child of what we stand to lose as the oceans warm. I had always wanted to see it for myself.

So one morning, on an ocean as flat and blue as a swimming pool, empty of other boats all the way to the cloud-strewn horizon, I hold a mask and regulator to my face and step into the water.

Underneath, huge mounds of coral rise 30 feet from the seafloor almost to the surface. I am surprised to find that these seamounts — called “bommies” in Aussie — are veritable catalogue advertisements of reef health and diversity. I see all kinds of Acropora — big, branching thickets of elkhorn, wide terraces of tabletop coral — all colored a healthy deep orange or yellow. Pocillopora sit on the tops of lower mounts like frilly heads of lettuce. I see enormous brain corals and tiny, fine-fingered soft corals that swayed in the current.

All around these pillars and buttresses, life swarms and flashes like static electricity: angelfish, damselfish, clownfish, a massive school of yellow-finned jacks winding between two bommies. There are skates bearing blue spots the size of silver dollars and parrotfish in all the colors of an 80s aerobics instructor’s leotard. Electric-blue sea stars stand out like asterisks on the sand, where giant clams flick their purple lips as I swim over.

If there is trouble on the Great Barrier Reef — and, by all accounts, there is — I can’t see a sign of it from behind my mask. In all its wild wholeness, this little patch of Edenic reef seems to stand both for what has been lost everywhere else, and what we stand to save.

But as I haul myself back out of the water — suddenly transformed back into a clumsy two-legged creature wearing sixty pounds of dive equipment and a fogged mask in front of my face — I feel both smaller and bigger than before. No matter how much I wanted to believe it while I was underwater, I knew that the idea of a pristine reef is an illusion. There are no virgin reefs to “preserve.” Any reef, any ecosystem, no matter how lovely, is in the process of being affected by the 7 billion (and counting) people of the world.

But that’s the way it’s always been. The reef is always changing: It is fed by currents and smashed by storms, and subject to the whims of the animals moving in waves over it. Flux is a fact of nature, and human are now a part of that. If we want to start setting right some of the balances we’ve upset, coral reefs are as good a symbol as any of where our real work begins — at the intersection between the world and ourselves.

 

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