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Divers in scuba gear collecting coral samples

Penn State biologist and colleagues receive $4M grant to identify heat-tolerant corals

3 June 2021

An international team that includes Penn State biologist Iliana Baums has been awarded a $4 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to identify corals that are naturally resilient to climate change. This is one of four newly funded projects funded by the foundation that are focused on the conservation and restoration of coral reefs in the context of the climate crisis.

Coral reefs sustain more than a quarter of all marine life and drive $2.7 trillion dollars in economic benefits such as tourism and food each year. Climate change, however, is rapidly accelerating their path toward extinction, threatening the safety, livelihood, and food security of almost one billion people across the globe. As a result of climate change, half of the world’s coral reefs have died in the last 50 years, and without drastic intervention to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, all will die by the end of this century under the current climate warming trajectory.

“Warming waters are particular damaging for corals because they can lead to bleaching, or the corals expelling the symbiont microalgae that live within their cells and provide nutrients,” said Baums, professor of biology. “But some corals may be better equipped to deal with warming waters than others.”

Divers in scuba gear collecting coral samples
Project lead Christian Voolstra collecting samples underwater at Ducie Island, one of the world's most remote reefs in the world. Credit: Pete West

To find these resilient corals that have evolved naturally to be more heat tolerant, Baums and colleagues are using a portable experimental system called the Coral Bleaching Automated Stress System (CBASS) assay that functions as a “cardiac stress test” for corals. Coral species are simultaneously exposed to varying temperatures to test their bleaching response, allowing researchers to identify resilient coral colonies. Researchers will analyze the entire coral tissue, including the members of their microbiome, using an integrated systems biology approach to detect which corals can better survive high temperatures.

“This work will allow us to identify naturally heat resilient corals, which could inform conservation efforts,” said Baums. “We can also focus our studies on these resilient corals to better understand what makes them heat tolerant and use that knowledge to slow the decline of coral reefs”

The project is led by Christian Voolstra at Konstanz University of Germany and also includes Daniel Barshis at Old Dominion University, Nitin Baliga and Dr. Jake Valenzuela at the Institute for Systems Biology, and Line Bay at the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Coral Bleaching Automated Stress System
The Coral Bleaching Automated Stress System (CBASS) deployed on a boat to survey the thermal tolerance of Red Sea corals. CBASS assays consist of standardized 18-hour long thermal exposures to varying temperatures and subsequent elucidation of thermal tolerance thresholds to assess differences in the bleaching response of coral populations. Credit: Christian Voolstra.

The grant will allow the team to build on their successful initial research and turn innovative ideas into scalable, sustainable solutions for coral reefs. This new suite of research grants from the foundation is designed with a three-year timeline and focuses on applied solutions that can be deployed in the field by 2024. 

“The rapid decline of coral reefs in the face of climate change makes finding adaptation techniques essential if corals are to survive,” said Jody Allen, co-founder and chair of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. “These grants build on the foundation’s longstanding commitment to coral reefs and support of applicable, scalable solutions to protect them. 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 “global search” research team has also received funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ruth Gates Coral Restoration Innovation Grant, the Fondation Pacifique, the German government, the University of Konstanz, and the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, funded by the partnership between the Australian Government’s Reef Trust and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (RRAP).

About Paul G. Allen Family Foundation

For more than three decades the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation has focused on changing the trajectory of some of the world's toughest problems. Founded by philanthropists Jody Allen and the late Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, the foundation initially invested in community needs across the Pacific Northwest with a focus on regional arts, underserved populations, and the environment. Today, the foundation supports a global portfolio of frontline partners working to preserve ocean health, protect wildlife, combat climate change, and strengthen communities.

Media Contacts
Iliana Baums
Professor of Biology
Gail McCormick
Science Writer