A gene-editing tool known as CRISPR-Cas9, which is being looked at to revolutionize medicine, may possibly be used to boost the resiliency of corals that are at severe threat of dying off due to climate change and ocean acidification.
A report has been published by biologist and geneticists at Stanford University and the University of Texas at Austin that looks at the potential of CRISPR to modify genes in coral.
Admittingly, the researchers did say that the investigation in the proposed use is at the beginning stages and there is a long way to go prior to implementation.
By using the bacteria-derived DNA slicer to turn off genes in the largely unexplored coral genome and then observe the outcome, the researchers can gain an understanding of how the symbiotic organism’s adaptions function on a molecular level. Once this has been done, more experiments can be done to enhance or alter genes identified to be involved with coral survival.
“I want this paper to provide an early blueprint of the types of genetic manipulations that scientists can start doing with corals,” said first author Phillip Cleves in a statement. “We hope that future experiments using CRISPR-Cas9 will help us develop a better understanding of basic coral biology that we then can apply to predict – and perhaps ameliorate – what’s going to happen in the future due to a changing climate.”
CRISPR works most efficiently when applied to an organism in the early stages of development, when there are the fewest possible cells to edit, Cleves and his colleagues traveled to the Great Barrier Reef to collect newly fertilized single-celled zygotes of the common branching coral called Acropora millepora.
They selected three target genes encoding a green fluorescent protein, a red fluorescent protein, and fibroblast growth factor which is a development-regulating protein thought to be involved in the establishment of new coral colonies Results from the initial study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, confirm that CRISPR can modify coral genes of which there is only one copy.
Moving forward, Cleves’ team has already started exploring genes that may help corals withstand environmental assaults. Recent research has revealed how devastating coral bleaching has been as it has been found that half of the coral in the northern Great Barrier Reef has died due to bleaching. The death of the coral comes from bleaching which takes when warmer water temperatures cause corals to expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues causing the coral to turn completely white. When a coral bleaches, it is not dead. Corals can survive a bleaching event, but they are under more stress and are subject to mortality.
The potential CRISPR has on saving reefs around the world is incredibly exciting but we do recommend airing on the side of caution as it has yet to be proved to work on a large scale and there is still a lot of research yet to do.