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."
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor specimens and the Foresight team is analyzing this data, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.