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

When ocean temperatures rise, corals expel symbiotic single-cell algae, leading to coral bleaching. Madeleine van Oppen, here in her lab, is adapting algae to warmer water to potentially protect corals from bleaching. (Photo courtesy of Marie Roman, Australian Institute of Marine Science)

The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation today announced it will fund $7.2 million in research grants to promote the resilience of coral reefs, with the aim of understanding how to conserve and restore them in the face of climate change.

About 30-to-50% of the world’s reef cover has disappeared since the 1980s, according to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Warming waters can lead to massive coral bleaching and death, and other effects of climate change, such as coral-weakening ocean acidification, also spur die-off. If the world warms by 1.5 degrees Celsius, a conservative estimate, 70 to 90% of coral reefs will be lost, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The new grants fund research into making coral reefs more adaptable to a changing climate. “We have to converge biomedical sciences with technology and coral reef ecology so we can assign the best path to adaptation,” said Sarah Frias-Torres, a marine scientist at Vulcan Inc., speaking on behalf of the foundation in a video accompanying the announcement. “Our research advances new approaches that will help some corals survive.”

The funding will support the following four projects:

Identification of corals with natural resilience to climate change. Identifying such “super corals” will help scientists understand heat tolerance and may support conservation projects. This global project includes researchers in Germany, Australia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and in Seattle at the Institute for Systems Biology.
Human assisted evolution of heat-resilient corals. Researchers at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology will identify heat-resilient corals in the field and then breed them in the lab under conditions simulating future climate conditions. They plan to plant the most resilient corals to degraded reefs in Hawaii to see how they fare.
Human assisted evolution of heat-tolerant symbiotic coral algae. When waters warm, corals often expel the symbiotic algae that live within them, leading to bleaching. Researchers at the Australian Institute of Marine Science are adapting algae to warmer waters to see if they can buffer coral from such heat-induced damage.
Restoration of coral reefs. Researchers at Southern Cross University in Australia aim to restore degraded reefs by clearing them of seaweed and then settling coral larvae onto them.

Each project has at least one additional funder, such as the U.S. 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 on coral reef heat tolerance.

Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, and support about 4,000 species of fish: the total economic value of coral reefs in the U.S. alone is estimated at $3.4 billion annually, according to NOAA, including fisheries, tourism and coastal protection. Formation of a reef can take up to 10,000 years, and a barrier reef or atoll 100,000 to 30 million years.

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