CRISPR could one day help conservationists save our ocean’s coral

The oceans are under attack and all signs point toward humans as the perpetrators. Sea temperatures are rising, fish populations are dwindling, and coral reefs are experiencing an unprecedented die-off called bleaching. For most accounts, the future for plants and animals on Earth looks pretty grim.

One could argue that rampant advances in technology are what got us here in the first place. But, in a similar vein, technological progress may be the planet’s last hope for survival.

In a recent study by an international team of researchers, scientists for the first time demonstrated that the groundbreaking gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 can be successfully used on coral. The breakthrough paves the way for CRISPR to potentially offer a boost for conservationists trying to save these ancient animals.

“Corals are facing unprecedented declines due to climate change, motivating researchers to understand molecular basis of their thermal tolerance, how they complete their life cycle, and interactions with algae that live inside them,” Phillip Cleves, a Stanford geneticist who co-led the research, told Digital Trends. “Our ability to understand how specific genes contribute to these traits in corals is held back by the lack of methods to test how a particular gene functions in corals.”

By using CRISPR, a fast and precise gene-editing tool considered a revolution in biology, Cleves and his colleagues hope to make precise edits to the coral genomes, in order to study how certain genes function and why coral are so sensitive to changes in the environment.

But there was a problem. Coral are selective breeders, releasing gametes (eggs and sperm) just once a year in accordance with water temperature and moon cycles.

“We wanted to introduce CRISPR into newly fertilized coral eggs, so we needed to be there right when they spawned,” Marie Strader, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara who co-led the research, said. “Because of limited access to gametes, the timing in which to perform these experiments was limited. Luckily, Dr. Line Bay (co-author of the paper) and others at the Australian Institute of Marine Science have decades of experience on when and where corals will spawn.”

After traveling to Australia, the researchers used CRISPR to knock out a select few genes. Their breakthrough came when they successfully edited a gene that is thought to help regulate new coral colonization.

The researchers admit that this is a small step down a long road, and they insist they aren’t trying to create a species of super coral. Rather, their goal is to better understand coral biology and, through that understanding, help these organisms survive the environmental trials that lay ahead.

“We intended this paper to serve as a humble blueprint for how researchers can use this technology to study the functions of coral genes,” Strader said. “We are currently conducting experiments investigating how specific genes regulate coral skeletal formation, or calcification, for example. However, we expect this technique could be useful to identify genes involved in many other ecologically important traits such as thermal tolerance or coral bleaching.

“There are so many open questions about which genes help corals thrive in these vibrant and changing ecosystems,” she added. “It is a very exciting time to do this type of work.”

A paper detailing the research this was published this week in the journal Processing of the National Academy of Sciences.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Roll-up solar panels, dream controllers, and more

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the Web this week. You can't buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

Genetically modified bacteria may be the key to plants that fertilize themselves

Scientists from Washington University in St. Louis have developed genetically engineered bacteria capable of pulling fertilizer out of thin air. Here's why that's such a potential game-changer.
Cars

Tesla has shortened its Model 3 wait time to just one to three months

Production of the Tesla Model 3 has officially begun. Tesla's long-awaited entry-level model is far cheaper than the Model S and will compete head-to-head with the Chevrolet Bolt EV. We drove it and concluded it lives up to the hype.
Movies & TV

The best movies on Netflix in July 2018, from ‘Coco’ to ‘Jurassic Park’

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, subdued humor, or anything in between.
Virtual Reality

Got a Gear VR headset? These are the apps and games you've got to try

Before you put on your new Gear VR headset, you should know which apps and games are worth downloading. Whether you're a fan of documentaries or arcade games, here's a list of the best Gear VR apps and games to be had.
Gaming

The 25 best SNES games

The Super Nintendo Entertainment System might be the greatest game console ever made, but what are the best titles for the system? Here are our picks for the best SNES games, including A Link to the Past and Chrono Trigger.
Emerging Tech

From robot insects to human-sniffing sensors, this rescue tech could save lives

Technology like inflatable vine robots and skin-sniffing smart sensors sound interesting, but could they actually save a person's life in a potential rescue mission? You may be surprised!
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix in July, from ‘Arrested Development’ to ‘Mad Men’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Emerging Tech

NASA is teaming up with the United Arab Emirates to send humans into space

Nasa has recently signed a deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to advance human space travel. In a recent tweet, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the signing of a joint letter of intent.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s Opportunity Rover is stuck in a giant dust storm that won’t end for months

A massive dust storm that is about the size of our continent has shrouded Mars and covered Opportunity for the last several weeks. Much of the planet is in the dark—and so too is Earth about Opportunity's whereabouts.
Social Media

Facebook is building a satellite

In publicly disclosed FCC emails and in a confirmation to Wired, Facebook has revealed that it is looking to launch an in-house developed satellite called Athena in order to offer broadband service to "unserved and underserved" areas.
Health & Fitness

Sweating up a storm? A new health sensor will eat that up

Today’s wearables generally depend upon your pulse and heart rate to gauge your fitness and health levels, but a team of scientists from Stanford are taking a closer look at another metric: Your sweat.
Emerging Tech

The best 3D printers of 2018

On the hunt for a new 3D printer? We've got your back. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned veteran, this list of the best 3D printers has what you're looking for.
Emerging Tech

Weekend workshop: Make this 3D-printed side table, even without a 3D printer

You can't 3D print a full piece of furniture, but you can 3D print joints that make building your own furniture a snap. In this article, we'll show you how to do just that, and create an awesome tripod end table that's partially 3D printed