UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — An international team that includes Penn State biologist Iliana Baums has been awarded a $4 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to identify corals that are naturally resilient to climate change. This is one of four newly funded projects supported by the foundation that are focused on the conservation and restoration of coral reefs in the context of the climate crisis.
Coral reefs sustain more than a quarter of all marine life and drive $2.7 trillion in economic benefits such as tourism and food each year. Climate change, however, is rapidly accelerating their path toward extinction, threatening the safety, livelihood and food security of almost one billion people across the globe. As a result of climate change, half of the world’s coral reefs have died in the last 50 years, and without drastic intervention to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, all will die by the end of this century under the current climate warming trajectory.
“Warming waters are particular damaging for corals because they can lead to bleaching, or the corals expelling the symbiont microalgae that live within their cells and provide nutrients,” said Baums. “But some corals may be better equipped to deal with warming waters than others.”
To find these resilient corals that have evolved naturally to be more heat tolerant, Baums and colleagues are using a portable experimental system called the Coral Bleaching Automated Stress System (CBASS) assay that functions as a “cardiac stress test” for corals. Coral species are simultaneously exposed to varying temperatures to test their bleaching response, allowing researchers to identify resilient coral colonies. Researchers will analyze the entire coral tissue, including the members of their microbiome, using an integrated systems biology approach to detect which corals can better survive high temperatures.
“This work will allow us to identify naturally heat-resilient corals, which could inform conservation efforts,” said Baums. “We can also focus our studies on these resilient corals to better understand what makes them heat tolerant and use that knowledge to slow the decline of coral reefs.”