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On Hawaii’s Coconut Island, scientists are engineering coral to survive the deadly effects of climate change


RUTH GATES hops off the launch and gestures toward a mass of submerged coral shimmering darkly in the crystalline waters a few feet offshore. “That whitish coral and the one covered with algae over there are dead,” she says. “The brown coral that you see growing in the gaps is still alive.”

We have arrived at Moku o Lo‘e (Coconut Island), the site of the University of Hawaii’s state-of-the-art marine laboratory, where Gates and her team are attempting to learn why some coral animals survive bleaching—when an environmental trigger like warm water causes corals to turn completely white and stop growing—while others, often just inches away, perish.

It is not just an academic question. Gates intends to use the results to breed—and eventually introduce—climate-adapted “super coral” to the ocean to help bring the world’s ailing reefs back to life. “So much of our field has been simply watching the demise of reefs,” she says. “It’s time to think about solutions. We don’t have a lot of time.”

This urgency led Gates to team up with marine ecologist Madeleine van Oppen in Australia on a five-year project, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (whose company Vulcan supports projects to promote ocean health and conservation), to engage in “human-assisted evolution.” It is not so different from what people have done for millennia with food crops, crossbreeding the best performers to create the fruits, grains and vegetables that we eat today. However, the idea of breeding coral, as one would wheat or tomatoes, has sparked controversy.

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