How Genetic Engineering Could Save the Coral Reefs
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."
Friday Five: The Therapeutic Value of Bonding with Fellow Sports Fans
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on new scientific theories and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
This episode includes an interview with Dr. Helen Keyes, Head of the School of Psychology and Sports Science at Anglia Ruskin University.
Listen on Apple | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher | Listen on Amazon | Listen on Google
- Attending sports events is linked to greater life satisfaction
- Identifying specific brain tumors in under 90 seconds with AI
- LSD - minus hallucinations - raises hopes for mental health
- New research on the benefits of cold showers
- Inspire awe in your kids and reap the benefits
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
Scientists and dark sky advocates team up to flip the switch on light pollution
As a graduate student in observational astronomy at the University of Arizona during the 1970s, Diane Turnshek remembers the starry skies above the Kitt Peak National Observatory on the Tucson outskirts. Back then, she could observe faint objects like nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters on most nights.
When Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh in 1981, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow. Over the next two decades, Turnshek almost forgot what a dark sky looked like. She witnessed pristine dark skies in their full glory again during a visit to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in early 2000s.
“I was shocked at how beautiful the dark skies were in the West. That is when I realized that most parts of the world have lost access to starry skies because of light pollution,” says Turnshek, an astronomer and lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2015, she became a dark sky advocate.
Light pollution is defined as the excessive or wasteful use of artificial light.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- which became commercially available in 2002 and rapidly gained popularity in offices, schools, and hospitals when their price dropped six years later — inadvertently fueled the surge in light pollution. As traditional light sources like halogen, fluorescent, mercury, and sodium vapor lamps have been phased out or banned, LEDs became the main source of lighting globally in 2019. Switching to LEDs has been lauded as a win-win decision. Not only are they cheap but they also consume a fraction of electricity compared to their traditional counterparts.
But as cheap LED installations became omnipresent, they increased light pollution. “People have been installing LEDs thinking they are making a positive change for the environment. But LEDs are a lot brighter than traditional light sources,” explains Ashley Wilson, director of conservation at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA). “Despite being energy-efficient, they are increasing our energy consumption. No one expected this kind of backlash from switching to LEDs.”
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings — the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle.
Currently, more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies. In the U.S. and Europe, that figure is above 99 percent.
According to the IDA, $3 billion worth of electricity is lost to skyglow every year in the U.S. alone — thanks to unnecessary and poorly designed outdoor lighting installations. Worse, the resulting light pollution has insidious impacts on humans and wildlife — in more ways than one.
Disrupting the brain’s clock
Light pollution impacts the circadian rhythms of all living beings—the natural internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle. Humans and other mammals have neurons in their retina called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These cells collect information about the visual world and directly influence the brain’s biological clock in the hypothalamus.
The ipRGCs are particularly sensitive to the blue light that LEDs emit at high levels, resulting in suppression of melatonin, a hormone that helps us sleep. A 2020 JAMA Psychiatry study detailed how teenagers who lived in areas with bright outdoor lighting at night went to bed late and slept less, which made them more prone to mood disorders and anxiety.
“Many people are skeptical when they are told something as ubiquitous as lights could have such profound impacts on public health,” says Gena Glickman, director of the Chronobiology, Light and Sleep Lab at Uniformed Services University. “But when the clock in our brains gets exposed to blue light at nighttime, it could result in a lot of negative consequences like impaired cognitive function and neuro-endocrine disturbances.”
In the last 12 years, several studies indicated that light pollution exposure is associated with obesity and diabetes in humans and animals alike. While researchers are still trying to understand the exact underlying mechanisms, they found that even one night of too much light exposure could negatively affect the metabolic system. Studies have linked light pollution to a higher risk of hormone-sensitive cancers like breast and prostate cancer. A 2017 study found that female nurses exposed to light pollution have a 14 percent higher risk of breast cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) identified long-term night shiftwork as a probable cause of cancer.
“We ignore our biological need for a natural light and dark cycle. Our patterns of light exposure have consequently become different from what nature intended,” explains Glickman.
Circadian lighting systems, designed to match individuals’ circadian rhythms, might help. The Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute developed LED light systems that mimic natural lighting fluxes, required for better sleep. In the morning the lights shine brightly as does the sun. After sunset, the system dims, once again mimicking nature, which boosts melatonin production. It can even be programmed to increase blue light indoors when clouds block sunlight’s path through windows. Studies have shown that such systems might help reduce sleep fragmentation and cognitive decline. People who spend most of their day indoors can benefit from such circadian mimics.
When Diane Turnshek moved to Pittsburgh, she found it almost impossible to see a clear night sky because the city’s countless lights created a bright dome of light called skyglow.
Leading to better LEDs
Light pollution disrupts the travels of millions of migratory birds that begin their long-distance journeys after sunset but end up entrapped within the sky glow of cities, becoming disoriented. A 2017 study in Nature found that nocturnal pollinators like bees, moths, fireflies and bats visit 62 percent fewer plants in areas with artificial lights compared to dark areas.
“On an evolutionary timescale, LEDs have triggered huge changes in the Earth’s environment within a relative blink of an eye,” says Wilson, the director of IDA. “Plants and animals cannot adapt so fast. They have to fight to survive with their existing traits and abilities.”
But not all types of LEDs are inherently bad -- it all comes down to how much blue light they emit. During the day, the sun emits blue light waves. By sunset, it’s replaced by red and orange light waves that stimulate melatonin production. LED’s artificial blue light, when shining at night, disrupts that. For some unknown reason, there are more bluer color LEDs made and sold.
“Communities install blue color temperature LEDs rather than redder color temperature LEDs because more of the blue ones are made; they are the status quo on the market,” says Michelle Wooten, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Most artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
While astronomers and the IDA have been educating LED manufacturers about these nuances, policymakers struggle to keep up with the growing industry. But there are things they can do—such as requiring LEDs to include dimmers. “Most LED installations can be dimmed down. We need to make the dimmable drivers a mandatory requirement while selling LED lighting,” says Nancy Clanton, a lighting engineer, designer, and dark sky advocate.
Some lighting companies have been developing more sophisticated LED lights that help support melatonin production. Lighting engineers at Crossroads LLC and Nichia Corporation have been working on creating LEDs that produce more light in the red range. “We live in a wonderful age of technology that has given us these new LED designs which cut out blue wavelengths entirely for dark-sky friendly lighting purposes,” says Wooten.
Dimming the lights to see better
The IDA and advocates like Turnshek propose that communities turn off unnecessary outdoor lights. According to the Department of Energy, 99 percent of artificial outdoor light produced is wasted as human eyes do not use them to navigate their surroundings.
In recent years, major cities like Chicago, Austin, and Philadelphia adopted the “Lights Out” initiative encouraging communities to turn off unnecessary lights during birds’ peak migration seasons for 10 days at a time. “This poses an important question: if people can live without some lights for 10 days, why can’t they keep them turned off all year round,” says Wilson.
Most communities globally believe that keeping bright outdoor lights on all night increases security and prevents crime. But in her studies of street lights’ brightness levels in different parts of the US — from Alaska to California to Washington — Clanton found that people felt safe and could see clearly even at low or dim lighting levels.
Clanton and colleagues installed LEDs in a Seattle suburb that provided only 25 percent of lighting levels compared to what they used previously. The residents reported far better visibility because the new LEDs did not produce glare. “Visual contrast matters a lot more than lighting levels,” Clanton says. Additionally, motion sensor LEDs for outdoor lighting can go a long way in reducing light pollution.
Flipping a switch to preserve starry nights
Clanton has helped draft laws to reduce light pollution in at least 17 U.S. states. However, poor awareness of light pollution led to inadequate enforcement of these laws. Also, getting thousands of counties and municipalities within any state to comply with these regulations is a Herculean task, Turnshek points out.
Fountain Hills, a small town near Phoenix, Arizona, has rid itself of light pollution since 2018, thanks to the community's efforts to preserve dark skies.
Until LEDs became mainstream, Fountain Hills enjoyed starry skies despite its proximity to Phoenix. A mountain surrounding the town blocks most of the skyglow from the city.
“Light pollution became an issue in Fountain Hills over the years because we were not taking new LED technologies into account. Our town’s lighting code was antiquated and out-of-date,” says Vicky Derksen, a resident who is also a part of the Fountain Hills Dark Sky Association founded in 2017. “To preserve dark skies, we had to work with the entire town to update the local lighting code and convince residents to follow responsible outdoor lighting practices.”
Derksen and her team first tackled light pollution in the town center which has a faux fountain in the middle of a lake. “The iconic centerpiece, from which Fountain Hills got its name, had the wrong types of lighting fixtures, which created a lot of glare,” adds Derksen. They then replaced several other municipal lighting fixtures with dark-sky-friendly LEDs.
The results were awe-inspiring. After a long time, residents could see the Milky Way with crystal clear clarity. Star-gazing activities made a strong comeback across the town. But keeping light pollution low requires constant work.
Derksen and other residents regularly measure artificial light levels in
Fountain Hills. Currently, the only major source of light pollution is from extremely bright, illuminated signs which local businesses had installed in different parts of the town. While Derksen says it is an uphill battle to educate local businesses about light pollution, Fountain Hills residents are determined to protect their dark skies.
“When a river gets polluted, it can take several years before clean-up efforts see any tangible results,” says Derksen. “But the effects are immediate when you work toward reducing light pollution. All it requires is flipping a switch.”