Gene editing is revealing how corals respond to warming waters. It could transform how we manage our reefs



Mikaela Nordborg/Australian Institute of Marine Science, Author provided

Dimitri Perrin, Queensland University of Technology; Jacob Bradford, Queensland University of Technology; Line K Bay, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Phillip Cleves, Carnegie Institution for Science

Genetic engineering has already cemented itself as an invaluable tool for studying gene functions in organisms.

Our new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, now demonstrates how gene editing can be used to pinpoint genes involved in corals’ ability to withstand heat stress.

A better understanding of such genes will lay the groundwork for experts to predict the natural response of coral populations to climate change. And this could guide efforts to improve coral adaptation, through the selective breeding of naturally heat-tolerant corals.

A threatened national treasure

The Great Barrier Reef is among the world’s most awe-inspiring, unique and economically valuable ecosystems. It spans more than 2,000 kilometres, has more than 600 types of coral, 1,600 types of fish and is of immense cultural significance — especially for Traditional Owners.

But warming ocean waters caused by climate change are leading to the mass bleaching and mortality of corals on the reef, threatening the reef’s long-term survival.




Read more:
The first step to conserving the Great Barrier Reef is understanding what lives there


Many research efforts are focused on how we can prevent the reef’s deterioration by helping it adapt to and recover from the conditions causing it stress.

Understanding the genes and molecular pathways that protect corals from heat stress will be key to achieving these goals.

While hypotheses exist about the roles of particular genes and pathways, rigorous testings of these have been difficult — largely due to a lack of tools to determine gene function in corals.

But over the past decade or so, CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing has emerged as a powerful tool to study gene function in non-model organisms.

CRISPR: a technological marvel

Scientists can use CRISPR to make precise changes to the DNA of a living organisms, by “cutting” its DNA and editing the sequence. This can involve inactivating a specific gene, introducing a new piece of DNA or replacing a piece.

In our 2018 research, we showed it is possible to make precise mutations in the coral genome using CRISPR technology. However, we were unable to determine the functions of our specific target genes.

For our latest research, we used an updated CRISPR method to sufficiently disrupt the Heat Shock Transcription Factor 1, or HSF1, in coral larvae.

Based on this protein-coding gene’s role in model organisms, including closely related sea anemones, we hypothesised it would play an important role in the heat response of corals.

Injection going into coral egg.
We injected CRISPR components into the fertilised eggs of the coral species Acropora millepora to inactivate the HSF1 gene.
Phillip Cleves/Carnegie Institute for Science, CC BY-NC-ND

Past research had also demonstrated HSF1 can influence a large number of heat response genes, acting as a kind of “master switch” to turn them on.

By inactivating this master switch, we expected to see significant changes in the corals’ heat tolerance. Our prediction proved accurate.




Read more:
What is CRISPR, the gene editing technology that won the Chemistry Nobel prize?


What we discovered by injecting coral eggs

We spawned corals at the Australian Institute of Marine Science during the annual mass spawning event in November, 2018.

We then injected CRISPR/Cas9 components into fertilised coral eggs to target the HSF1 gene in the common and widespread staghorn coral Acropora millepora.

_Acropora millepora_ coral colony during a mass spawning event.
Acropora millepora colonies can be found widely on the Great Barrier Reef. They reproduce sexually in ‘mass spawning’ events.
Mikaela Nordborg/Australian Institute of Marine Science, Author provided

We were able to demonstrate a strong effect of HSF1 on corals’ heat tolerance. Specifically, when this gene was mutated using CRISPR (and no longer functional) the corals were more vulnerable to heat stress.

Larvae with knocked-out copies of HSF1 died under heat stress when the water temperature was increased from 27℃ to 34℃. In contrast, larvae with the functional gene survived well in the warmer water.

Let’s understand what we already have

It may be tempting now to focus on using gene-editing tools to engineer heat-resistant strains of corals, to fast-track the Great Barrier Reef’s adaptation to warming waters.

However, genetic engineering should first and foremost be used to increase our knowledge of the fundamental biology of corals and other reef organisms, including their response to heat stress.

Not only will this help us more accurately predict the natural response of coral reefs to a changing climate, it will also shed light on the risks and benefits of new management tools for corals, such as selective breeding.

It is our hope these genetic insights will provide a solid foundation for future reef conservation and management efforts.The Conversation

During mass spawning events, corals release little balls that float to the ocean’s surface in a spectacle resembling an upside-down snowstorm.

Dimitri Perrin, Senior Lecturer, Queensland University of Technology; Jacob Bradford, , Queensland University of Technology; Line K Bay, Principal Research Scientist and Team Leader, Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Phillip Cleves, Principal Investigator, Carnegie Institution for Science

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ocean acidification causes young corals to develop deformed skeletons


Taryn Foster, University of Western Australia and Peta Clode, University of Western Australia

Coral reefs around the world are facing a whole spectrum of human-induced disturbances that are affecting their ability to grow, reproduce and survive. These range from local pressures such as overfishing and sedimentation, to global ones such as ocean acidification and warming. With the third global coral bleaching event underway, we now more than ever, need to understand how coral responds to these stressors.

Our new research, published in Science Advances, now shows that young corals develop deformed and porous skeletons when they grow in more acidified waters, potentially making it more difficult for them to establish themselves on the reef and survive to adulthood.

Juvenile corals

Corals vary in their responses to stress, not only between species and location, but also among different stages of their life cycle. Juvenile corals are extremely important to the health of a reef, as they help to replenish the reef’s coral population and also help it recover from severe disturbances such as bleaching and storms.

However, newly settled young corals are small (typically about 1 mm across) and therefore very vulnerable to things like overgrowth and predation. To survive into adulthood they need to grow quickly out of this vulnerable size class. To do that they need to build a robust skeleton that can maintain its structural integrity during growth.

Two major factors that affect coral skeletal growth are ocean temperature and carbon dioxide concentration. Both are on the rise as we continue to emit huge amounts of CO₂ into the atmosphere. Generally with adult corals, increased temperature and CO₂ both reduce growth rates. But this varies considerably depending on the species and the environmental conditions to which the coral has been exposed.

Much less is known about the impacts of these factors on juvenile corals. This is mainly because their small size makes them more difficult to study, and they are only usually around once a year during the annual coral spawn. The corals we studied spawn for just a couple of hours, on one night of the year, meaning that our study hinged on taking samples during a crucial one-hour window.

When collecting the samples, at Western Australia’s Basile Island in the Houtman Abrolhos archipelago in March 2013, we watched the adult spawners each night waiting to see if they would spawn and, when they did, we worked all night fertilising the eggs to collect our juvenile samples.

Having collected our elusive coral samples, we cultured and grew newly settled coral recruits under temperature and CO₂ conditions that are expected to occur by the end of the century if no action is taken to curb the current trajectory of CO₂ emissions.

We then used three-dimensional X-ray microscopy to look at how these conditions affect the structure of the skeleton. This technique involves taking many X-ray projection images of the sample (in this case around 3,200) and then reconstructing them into a 3D image.

A 3D X-ray microscopy image of a one-month-old coral skeleton.
Taryn Foster/Science Advances, Author provided

Deformed and porous skeletons

Corals grown under high-CO₂ conditions not only showed reduced skeletal growth overall, but developed a range of skeletal deformities.

These included reduced overall size, gaps, over- and under-sized structures, and in some cases, large sections of skeleton completely missing. We also saw deep pitting and fractures in the skeletons of corals grown under high CO₂, typical of skeletal dissolution and structural fragility.

Surprisingly, increased temperature did not have a negative impact on skeletal growth and for some measures even appeared to help to offset the negative impacts of high CO₂ – a response we think may be unique to sub-tropical juveniles.

Nevertheless, our study highlights the vulnerability of juvenile corals to ocean acidification.

Under the current CO₂ emissions trajectory, our findings indicate that young corals will not be able to effectively build their skeletons. This could have wider implications for coral reef health, because without healthy new recruits, reefs will not replenish and will be less able to bounce back from disturbances.

The effect of temperature in this study however, was both a surprising and welcome finding. There is a lot of variation even between species, but it is possible that subtropical organisms have more plasticity due to their natural exposure to a wider range of conditions. This could indicate that subtropical juveniles may have an unexpected edge when it comes to ocean warming.

The Conversation

Taryn Foster, PhD Candidate, School of Earth and Environment, University of Western Australia and Peta Clode, Associate Professor, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.