Estimates show that 50% of the world’s corals have already been lost with as much as 90% loss projected by 2050. Consensus is building that even the strongest corals will struggle to withstand more frequent and more severe stressors in the future. But there is hope! Several recent research advances have demonstrated the potential for new tools in the study and engineering of corals. We created the Advanced Coral Toolkit program to promote the development and fielding of new biotechnologies that have the potential to greatly benefit coral resilience and restoration efforts. Below are the current and completed projects and their principal investigators.

Creation and Cryopreservation of Coral Nanofragments

Dr. Mary Hagedorn, Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute

The goal of this project is to develop methods to cryopreserve and thaw single-polyp nanofragments of model species of Hawaiian coral. Successfully cryopreserved and thawed nanofragments could be used for coral restoration, now or centuries from now.

There is an important advantage of nanofragment cryopreservation over larvae cryopreservation (a technique that has already been developed). Nanofragment techniques will be independent of coral larvae or coral reproductive events, which occur but once a year.

New methods will be used to create pinhead-sized asexual coral nanofragments that exhibit stem cell qualities and apply existing cryopreservation and ultra-rapid warming methods to freeze, store, and reanimate these fragments. New methods will also be developed to return the thawed nanofragments to seawater and demonstrate how to best utilize them to create rapidly growing coral for restoration.

Photo, right: Dr. Hagedorn successfully cryopreserved and thawed larvae from the Fungia scutaria coral in 2018.

Development of Coral Stem Cells for Recovery and Restoration

Dr. Nikki Traylor-Knowles, University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and Dr. Benyamin Rosental, Ben Gurion University, Israel

Stem cells are capable of differentiation into a wide variety of cells and have been shown in many organisms to be critical for therapeutic and regenerative applications. Improved knowledge about coral stem cells and the development of techniques for isolation and propagation will provide technology that is fundamental for the repair, recovery, and regeneration of thermotolerant corals. Using Pocillopora damicornis as a model, this project will lay the groundwork for the application of stem cell technology to the daunting problem of coral conservation.

Photo left: A coral laboratory set-up from the Traylor-Knowles lab.

Montipora genomics—investigating success in a ‘weedy’ coral

Dr. Giacomo Bernardi, One People One Reef

The objective of this project is to use genomics and ecological data to investigate the apparent adaptive advantage that a ‘weedy’ species of Montipora coral has exhibited in the Yap outer islands, Federated States of Micronesia. Dr. Bernardi is interested in investigating the genetics of this organism, with a particular focus on genes under selection, potentially providing a window into the resilience and adaptability of this coral.

Photo, right: A Montipora reef near Asor Island, Ulithi Atoll, Federated States of Micronesia. 

Metabolomics As a Platform for Coral Monitoring and Conservation

Dr. Debashish Bhattacharya, Rutgers University and Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology

Coral stress indicators may lead to earlier predictions of coral bleaching events. The goal of this project is to develop the knowledge needed to design and construct a portable coral stress monitoring instrument. This instrument will rely on a panel of well-characterized antibodies and redox-based sensors of stress-related enzymes and metabolites, respectively—to assess coral health prior to bleaching and to allow time to enact appropriate interventions.

Photo left: Corals at low tide outside the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

Coral Stress Triggers as Targets for Genetic Intervention and Climate Change Resilience

Dr. Steve Palumbi, Stanford University

The purpose of this project was to establish a new research paradigm using pharmacological agents to explore the cellular controls that trigger coral bleaching. This project is now complete. The pharmacological agents were successful in manipulating coral gene expression, showing their utility for corals research.

A set of cellular switches may be involved in triggering coral bleaching events, the most promising of which is the unfolded protein response (UPR). This project tested the possibility that UPR is a fundamental part of the coral bleaching trigger. The typical way to test such a hypothesis is through genetic manipulation of cultured cells—yet traditional genetics techniques are not feasible in corals. Without an ability to manipulate coral genomes directly, coral geneticists cannot directly test their hypotheses. To make immediate progress, a novel strategy was borrowed from cancer research. The Palumbi laboratory used pharmacological agents, that have specific effects on highly conserved proteins, to study coral cell biochemistry.

Photo, right: A researcher from the Palumbi lab collects a coral sample.