A project by the Australian Institute of Marine Science is raising some serious scientific and ethical questions.
Scientists are aiming to find the toughest and hardiest of corals that remain on the Great Barrier Reef. Then once the specimens are located they would be removed, and bred in labs, before being transplanted back into the ocean, so they can start rebuilding the reefs.
Effectively the project aims to accelerate an evolutionary process and create stronger, tougher, and hardier reefs that are better able to withstand change.
The Australian project is not alone: Similar projects are occurring in both Florida and Hawaii, according to The New York Times. So far all the projects are small-scale affairs, as restricted government funding prevents the projects from expanding into wholesale reef replacement operations.
Speculation is that the ultimate solution may involve genetically modifying corals, and placing a heat-resistant gene in them. This has led to some serious ethical questions. While humans have genetically modified food crops, they are still banned in some countries. What effects could there be if we start interfering with genes in the wild? There are also questions of when to intervene, and what kind of intervention is the right one. In addition, if nothing is done, we may lose all our coral reefs.
In additional to ethical questions, there are also some scientific and technical questions to answer: Corals grow and breed slowly — can the speed be increased in the lab? While some techniques have been developed to answer this, there are still a lot of other questions that need solving.
One thing is evident: Scientists working on different projects are making advances in different areas, and by combining their knowledge things may gather pace. However even if the scientific questions are solved quickly, the ethical ones will take much longer to answer.