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ISB Researchers Among World-Class Experts Targeting Coral Bleaching

Coral: Healthy and Bleached

Side-by-side image of healthy and bleached coral.

ISB Drs. Jacob Valenzuela and Nitin Baliga are working to answer key questions about how climate change is affecting marine life, food supplies, and other systems in the world’s oceans  including coral reefs.

Today, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation announced a $4 million grant over three years to support the efforts of a collaborative research team aiming to help coral reefs survive the impacts of climate change. The research group is led by Professor Christian Voolstra of Konstanz University of Germany, and is made up of a global academic team from ISB, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Old Dominion, and Pennsylvania State University.

“The rapid decline of coral reefs in the face of climate change makes finding adaptation techniques essential if corals are to survive,” Jody Allen, co-founder and chair of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, said in a press release announcing the grant. “We are at a critical juncture with coral reefs facing extinction and the world must continue to invest in actionable research that ensures their preservation and long-term survival.”

The research team will look for corals that have evolved naturally to be more heat tolerant and resilient. To find them, researchers will use an on-deck, portable experimental system called the Coral Bleaching Automated Stress System (CBASS) that performs “stress tests” on corals to generate vast amounts of data for analysis with a systems biology approach.

CBASS can simultaneously expose coral samples to varying temperatures to test their bleaching response and assay molecular and genome-wide changes across all three components that make up corals: the polyps, the dinoflagellate symbiont, and the microbiome. This allows researchers to identify resilient coral colonies. The team is currently finalizing a manuscript that details a proof-of-concept study on which the new initiative is based.

Valenzuela and Baliga

Drs. Jacob Valenzuela and Nitin Baliga

“This generous grant is crucial for helping us search for and identify corals that are naturally resilient to climate change. These corals can then be prioritized for conservation efforts and studied to help us understand what makes a coral reef more heat tolerant,” said Baliga, ISB Professor, Director and Senior Vice President. “The grant also serves as a testament to the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation’s commitment to funding timely and impactful climate-change research.”

Coral reefs sustain more than a quarter of all marine life and drive $2.7 trillion in ecosystem services each year. Climate change, however, is rapidly accelerating their path toward extinction. In the last 50 years, half of the world’s corals have died. If global temperatures increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, 70 percent of the world’s reefs will be lost by 2100.

“I am very proud of the work our team at ISB has done over the past several years, and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation support validates some of our approaches,” said Valenzuela, an ISB research scientist. “The researchers that have been assembled for this project are fantastic and experts across the globe. It’s going to be exciting to see what new research comes out of this work.”