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'Super coral' could ward off devastating effects of warming oceans

As warming ocean waters continue to threaten coral reefs worldwide, researchers at the University of Hawaii have developed a plan that could reverse the rapid decline of these ecosystems.

For years, warming waters caused by unnatural levels of carbon dioxide have made corals more susceptible to a phenomenon called bleaching.

Coral bleaching occurs when a coral is exposed to stressful conditions in its environment, such as increased water temperatures. This often forces the corals to expel the algae that lives in its tissues, causing it to turn white.

Without algae, the coral lacks a major source of food and becomes more susceptible to disease.

While corals can recover from mild bleaching, severe or long-term bleaching is often lethal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In October of 2015, NOAA declared the third global coral bleaching event ever on record, as stressful conditions expanded to the Caribbean, threatening reefs in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands southward into the Leeward and Windward islands.

"The coral bleaching and disease, brought on by climate change and coupled with events like the current El Niño, are the largest and most pervasive threats to coral reefs around the world," Mark Eakin, NOAA's Coral Reef Watch coordinator, said in a statement.

"As a result, we are losing huge areas of coral across the U.S., as well as internationally."

To combat these losses, researchers with the University of Hawaii, supported by Microsoft Co-founder Paul G. Allen's Vulcan Inc., are identifying groups of corals that have been unaffected by warmer waters.

These stronger, more resilient strains - nicknamed "super corals" - are then being conditioned to survive in increasingly warmer and more acidic waters.

"Not all corals are created equal," Researcher and Co-grantee Ruth D. Gates from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said.

"We will capitalize on those corals that already show a stronger ability to withstand the changing ocean environment and their capacity to pass this resilience along to new generations," Gates said.

The process, known as human-assisted evolution, is underway with a set of corals that were unaffected by an earlier warming event that bleached neighboring strains.

During the researchers' five-year grant period, the team hopes to build a bank of resistant coral strains which can be placed on a damaged and denuded reef.

The goal is that these super corals will then reproduce with existing corals, enhancing the reef's overall resiliency.

"At Vulcan, we are excited about this project because of the significant need that it addresses," Dune Ives, senior director of philanthropy at Vulcan Inc., said.

"If coral reefs continue to decline due to warmer, more acidic ocean water, marine ecosystems will forever be altered with ripple effects that we don't yet fully comprehend," Ives said.