Paul G. Allen Family Foundation funds $7.2M in grants to shield coral reefs from decline

When ocean temperatures rise, corals release symbiotic unicellular algae, which leads to coral bleaching. Here in her laboratory, Madeleine van Oppen adapts algae to warmer water in order to possibly protect corals from bleaching. (Courtesy photo by Marie Roman, Australian Institute of Marine Science)

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation announced today that it will provide $ 7.2 million in research grants to advance coral reef resilience with the aim of understanding how to conserve and restore it in the face of climate change.

According to the US National Academy of Sciences, around 30 to 50% of the world’s reef cover has disappeared since the 1980s. Warming water can lead to massive coral bleaching and death, and other effects of climate change, such as coral-weakening ocean acidification, are also contributing to death. According to a conservative estimate, if the world warms up by 1.5 degrees Celsius, 70 to 90% of coral reefs will be lost, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The new grants fund research into adapting coral reefs to a changing climate. “We need to merge biomedical science with technology and coral reef ecology so we can find the best way to adapt,” said Sarah Frias-Torres, marine scientist at Vulcan Inc., on behalf of the foundation in a video accompanying the announcement. “Our research is driving new approaches that will help some corals survive.”

The funding supports the following four projects:

  • Identification of corals with natural resilience to climate change. Identifying such “super corals” will help scientists understand heat tolerance and can support conservation projects. Researchers in Germany, Australia, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Seattle at the Institute for Systems Biology are involved in this global project.
  • Human-assisted evolution of heat-resistant corals. Researchers at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology will identify heat-resistant corals in the field and then breed them in the laboratory under conditions that simulate future climatic conditions. They plan to plant the toughest corals on degraded reefs in Hawaii to see how they fare.
  • Human assisted evolution of heat tolerant symbiotic coral algae. When the water is warm, corals often drive away the symbiotic algae that live in them, resulting in bleaching. Researchers at the Australian Institute of Marine Science are adapting algae to warmer water to see if they can protect corals from such heat-related damage.
  • Coral reef restoration. Researchers at Southern Cross University in Australia want to restore degraded reefs by removing algae and then relocating coral larvae on them.

Each project has at least one other funder, such as the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.

With these awards, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation builds on its other support for coral reef research, including the Allen Coral Atlas, and $ 4.3 million awarded in 2014 to the University of Hawaii for research into coral reef heat tolerance .

Coral reefs are one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems and are home to approximately 4,000 species of fish: The total economic value of coral reefs in the United States alone is estimated at $ 3.4 billion annually, including fishing, tourism, and coastal protection, according to NOAA. A reef can take up to 10,000 years to form, and a barrier reef or atoll 100,000 to 30 million years.

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