Coral reefs are usually relegated to bit player status in television and movies, providing splashes of background color for "Shark Week," "Finding Nemo," and other marine-based entertainment.
In real life, the reefs are an absolutely crucial component of the ecosystem for both oceans and land, rivaling only the rain forests in their biological complexity. They provide shelter and sustenance for up to a quarter of all marine life, oxygenate the water, help protect coastlines from erosion, and support thousands of tourism jobs and businesses.
Genetic engineering could help scientists rebuild the reefs that have been lost, and turn those still alive into a souped-up version that can withstand warmer and even more acidic waters.
But the warming of the world's oceans -- exacerbated by an El Nino event that occurred between 2014 and 2016 -- has been putting the world's reefs under tremendous pressure. Their vibrant colors are being replaced by sepulchral whites and tans.
That's the result of bleaching -- a phenomenon that occurs when the warming waters impact the efficiency of the algae that live within the corals in a symbiotic relationship, providing nourishment via photosynthesis and eliminating waste products. The corals will often "shuffle" their resident algae, reacting in much the same way a landlord does with a non-performing tenant -- evicting them in the hopes of finding a better resident. But when better-performing algae does not appear, the corals become malnourished, eventually becoming deprived of their color and then their lives.
The situation is dire: Two-thirds of Australia's Great Barrier Reef have undergone a bleaching event in recent years, and it's believed up to half of that reef has died.
Moreover, hard corals are the ocean's redwood trees. They take centuries to grow, meaning it could take centuries or more to replace them.
Recent developments in genetic engineering -- and an accidental discovery by researchers at a Florida aquarium -- provide opportunities for scientists to potentially rebuild a large proportion of the reefs that have been lost, and perhaps turn those still alive into a souped-up version that can withstand warmer and even more acidic waters. But many questions have yet to be answered about both the biological impact on the world's oceans, and the ethics of reengineering the linchpin of its ecosystem.
How did we get here?
Coral bleaching was a regular event in the oceans even before they began to warm. As a result, natural selection weeds out the weaker species, says Rachel Levin, an American-born scientist who has performed much of her graduate work in Australia. But the current water warming trend is happening at a much higher rate than it ever has in nature, and neither the coral nor the algae can keep up.
"There is a big concern about giving one variant a huge fitness advantage, have it take over and impact the natural variation that is critical in changing environments."
In a widely-read paper published last year in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, Levin and her colleagues put forth a fairly radical notion for preserving the coral reefs: Genetically modify their resident algae.
Levin says the focus on algae is a pragmatic decision. Unlike coral, they reproduce extremely rapidly. In theory, a modified version could quickly inhabit and stabilize a reef. About 70 percent of algae -- all part of the genus symbiodinium -- are host generalists. That means they will insert themselves into any species of coral.
In recent years, work on mapping the genomes of both algae and coral has been progressing rapidly. Scientists at Stanford University have recently been manipulating coral genomes using larvae manipulated with the CRISPR/Cas9 technology, although the experimentation has mostly been limited to its fluorescence.
Genetically modifying the coral reefs could seem like a straightforward proposition, but complications are on the horizon. Levin notes that as many as 20 different species of algae can reside within a single coral, so selecting the best ones to tweak may pose a challenge.
"The entire genus is made up of thousands of subspecies, all very genetically distinct variants. There is a huge genetic diversity, and there is a big concern about giving one variant a huge fitness advantage, have it take over and impact the natural variation that is critical in changing environments," Levin says.
Genetic modifications to an algae's thermal tolerance also poses the risk of what Levin calls an "off-target effect." That means a change to one part of the genome could lead to changes in other genes, such as those regulating growth, reproduction, or other elements crucial to its relationship with coral.
Phillip Cleves, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford who has participated in the CRISPR/Cas9 work, says that future research will focus on studying the genes in coral that regulate the relationship with the algae. But he is so concerned about the ethical issues of genetically manipulating coral to adapt to a changing climate that he declined to discuss it in detail. And most coral species have not yet had their genomes fully mapped, he notes, suggesting that such work could still take years.
An Alternative: Coral Micro-fragmentation
In the meantime, there is another technique for coral preservation led by David Vaughan, senior scientist and program manager at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida.
Vaughan's research team has been experimenting in the past decade with hard coral regeneration. Their work had been slow and painstaking, since growing larvae into a coral the size of a quarter takes three years.
The micro-fragmenting process in some ways raises fewer ethical questions than genetically altering the species.
But then, one day in 2006, Vaughan accidentally broke off a tiny piece of coral in the research aquarium. That fragment grew to the size of a quarter in three months, apparently the result of the coral's ability to rapidly regenerate when injured. Further research found that breaking coral in this manner -- even to the size of a single polyp -- led to rapid growth in more than two-dozen species.
Mote is using this process, known as micro-fragmentation, to grow large numbers of coral rapidly, often fusing them on top of larger pieces of dead coral. These coral heads are then planted in the Florida Keys, which has experienced bleaching events over 12 of the last 14 years. The process has sped up almost exponentially; Mote has planted some 36,000 pieces of coral to date, but Vaughan says it's on track to plant 35,000 more pieces this year alone. That sum represents between 20 to 30 acres of restored reef. Mote is on track to plant another 100,000 pieces next year.
This rapid reproduction technique in some ways allows Mote scientists to control for the swift changes in ocean temperature, acidification and other factors. For example, using surviving pieces of coral from areas that have undergone bleaching events means these hardier strains will propagate much faster than nature allows.
Vaughan recently visited the Yucatan Peninsula to work with Mexican researchers who are going to embark on a micro-fragmenting initiative of their own.
The micro-fragmenting process in some ways raises fewer ethical questions than genetically altering the species, although Levin notes that this could also lead to fewer varieties of corals on the ocean floor -- a potential flattening of the colorful backdrops seen in television and movies.
But Vaughan has few qualms, saying this is an ecological imperative. He suggests that micro-fragmentation could serve as a stopgap until genomic technologies further advance.
"We have to use the technology at hand," he says. "This is a lot like responding when a forest burns down. We don't ask questions. We plant trees."
No human has run a distance of 100 meters faster than Usain Bolt’s lightning streak in 2009. He set this record at age 22. But what will Bolt’s time be when he’s 105?
At the Louisiana Senior Games in November 2021, 105-year-old Julia Hawkins of Baton Rouge became the oldest woman to run 100 meters in an official competition, qualifying her for this year's National Senior Games. Perhaps not surprisingly, she was the only competitor in the race for people 105 and older. In this Leaps.org video, I interview Hawkins about her lifestyle habits over the decades. Then I ask Steven Austad, a pioneer in studying the mechanisms of aging, for his scientific insights into how those aspiring to become super-agers might follow in Hawkins' remarkable footsteps.
Following the Footsteps of a 105-Year-Old SprinterNo human has run a distance of 100 meters faster than Usain Bolt’s lightning streak in 2009. He set this record at age 22. But what will Bolt’s time be when ...
A new virus has emerged and stoked fears of another pandemic: monkeypox. Since May 2022, it has been detected in 29 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico among international travelers and their close contacts. On a worldwide scale, as of June 30, there have been 5,323 cases in 52 countries.
The good news: An existing vaccine can go a long way toward preventing a catastrophic outbreak. Because monkeypox is a close relative of smallpox, the same vaccine can be used—and it is about 85 percent effective against the virus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Also on the plus side, monkeypox is less contagious with milder illness than smallpox and, compared to COVID-19, produces more telltale signs. Scientists think that a “ring” vaccination strategy can be used when these signs appear to help with squelching this alarming outbreak.
How it’s transmitted
Monkeypox spreads between people primarily through direct contact with infectious sores, scabs, or bodily fluids. People also can catch it through respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As of June 30, there have been 396 documented monkeypox cases in the U.S., and the CDC has activated its Emergency Operations Center to mobilize additional personnel and resources. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is aiming to boost testing capacity and accessibility. No Americans have died from monkeypox during this outbreak but, during the COVID-19 pandemic (February 2020 to date), Africa has documented 12,141 cases and 363 deaths from monkeypox.
Ring vaccination proved effective in curbing the smallpox and Ebola outbreaks. As the monkeypox threat continues to loom, scientists view this as the best vaccine approach.
A person infected with monkeypox typically has symptoms—for instance, fever and chills—in a contagious state, so knowing when to avoid close contact with others makes it easier to curtail than COVID-19.
Advantages of ring vaccination
For this reason, it’s feasible to vaccinate a “ring” of people around the infected individual rather than inoculating large swaths of the population. Ring vaccination proved effective in curbing the smallpox and Ebola outbreaks. As the monkeypox threat continues to loom, scientists view this as the best vaccine approach.
With many infections, “it normally would make sense to everyone to vaccinate more widely,” says Wesley C. Van Voorhis, a professor and director of the Center for Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. However, “in this case, ring vaccination may be sufficient to contain the outbreak and also minimize the rare, but potentially serious side effects of the smallpox/monkeypox vaccine.”
There are two licensed smallpox vaccines in the United States: ACAM2000 (live Vaccina virus) and JYNNEOS (live virus non-replicating). The ACAM 2000, Van Voorhis says, is the old smallpox vaccine that, in rare instances, could spread diffusely within the body and cause heart problems, as well as severe rash in people with eczema or serious infection in immunocompromised patients.
To prevent organ damage, the current recommendation would be to use the JYNNEOS vaccine, says Phyllis Kanki, a professor of health sciences in the division of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. However, according to a report on the CDC’s website, people with immunocompromising conditions could have a higher risk of getting a severe case of monkeypox, despite being vaccinated, and “might be less likely to mount an effective response after any vaccination, including after JYNNEOS.”
In the late 1960s, the ring vaccination strategy became part of the WHO’s mission to globally eradicate smallpox, with the last known natural case described in Somalia in 1977. Ring vaccination can also refer to how a clinical trial is designed, as was the case in 2015, when this approach was used for researching the benefits of an investigational Ebola vaccine in Guinea, Kanki says.
“Since Monkeypox spreads by close contact and we have an effective vaccine, vaccinating high-risk individuals and their contacts may be a good strategy to limit transmission,” she says, adding that privacy is an important ethical principle that comes into play, as people with monkeypox would need to disclose their close contacts so that they could benefit from ring vaccination.
Rapid identification of cases and contacts—along with their cooperation—is essential for ring vaccination to be effective. Although mass vaccination also may work, the risk of infection to most of the population remains low while supply of the JYNNEOS vaccine is limited, says Stanley Deresinski, a clinical professor of medicine in the Infectious Disease Clinic at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Other strategies for preventing transmission
Ideally, the vaccine should be administered within four days of an exposure, but it’s recommended for up to 14 days. The WHO also advocates more widespread vaccination campaigns in the population segment with the most cases so far: men who engage in sex with other men.
The virus appears to be spreading in sexual networks, which differs from what was seen in previously reported outbreaks of monkeypox (outside of Africa), where risk was associated with travel to central or west Africa or various types of contact with individuals or animals from those locales. There is no evidence of transmission by food, but contaminated articles in the environment such as bedding are potential sources of the virus, Deresinski says.
Severe cases of monkeypox can occur, but “transmission of the virus requires close contact,” he says. “There is no evidence of aerosol transmission, as occurs with SARS-CoV-2, although it must be remembered that the smallpox virus, a close relative of monkeypox, was transmitted by aerosol.”
Deresinski points to the fact that in 2003, monkeypox was introduced into the U.S. through imports from Ghana of infected small mammals, such as Gambian giant rats, as pets. They infected prairie dogs, which also were sold as pets and, ultimately, this resulted in 37 confirmed transmissions to humans and 10 probable cases. A CDC investigation identified no cases of human-to-human transmission. Then, in 2021, a traveler flew from Nigeria to Dallas through Atlanta, developing skin lesions several days after arrival. Another CDC investigation yielded 223 contacts, although 85 percent were deemed to be at only minimal risk and the remainder at intermediate risk. No new cases were identified.
How much should we be worried
But how serious of a threat is monkeypox this time around? “Right now, the risk to the general public is very low,” says Scott Roberts, an assistant professor and associate medical director of infection prevention at Yale School of Medicine. “Monkeypox is spread through direct contact with infected skin lesions or through close contact for a prolonged period of time with an infected person. It is much less transmissible than COVID-19.”
The monkeypox incubation period—the time from infection until the onset of symptoms—is typically seven to 14 days but can range from five to 21 days, compared with only three days for the Omicron variant of COVID-19. With such a long incubation, there is a larger window to conduct contact tracing and vaccinate people before symptoms appear, which can prevent infection or lessen the severity.
But symptoms may present atypically or recognition may be delayed. “Ring vaccination works best with 100 percent adherence, and in the absence of a mandate, this is not achievable,” Roberts says.
At the outset of infection, symptoms include fever, chills, and fatigue. Several days later, a rash becomes noticeable, usually beginning on the face and spreading to other parts of the body, he says. The rash starts as flat lesions that raise and develop fluid, similar to manifestations of chickenpox. Once the rash scabs and falls off, a person is no longer contagious.
“It's an uncomfortable infection,” says Van Voorhis, the University of Washington School of Medicine professor. There may be swollen lymph nodes. Sores and rash are often limited to the genitals and areas around the mouth or rectum, suggesting intimate contact as the source of spread.
Symptoms of monkeypox usually last from two to four weeks. The WHO estimated that fatalities range from 3 to 6 percent. Although it’s believed to infect various animal species, including rodents and monkeys in west and central Africa, “the animal reservoir for the virus is unknown,” says Kanki, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health professor.
Too often, viruses originate in parts of the world that are too poor to grapple with them and may lack the resources to invest in vaccines and treatments. “This disease is endemic in central and west Africa, and it has basically been ignored until it jumped to the north and infected Europeans, Americans, and Canadians,” Van Voorhis says. “We have to do a better job in health care and prevention all over the world. This is the kind of thing that comes back to bite us.”