"Assisted Evolution" versus "Genetic Modification"

"Assisted Evolution" versus "Genetic Modification"

Dr. Madeleine van Oppen is an ARC Future Fellow & AIMS' Senior Principal Research Scientist in the "A Healthy and Resilient GBR" Program. Photo: Monash University – ARMI

An interview with AIMS scientist Dr Madeleine van Oppen about her ongoing research into "Assisted Evolution" in corals.


What is Assisted Evolution?

Assisted Evolution (AE) is sometimes called "human-assisted evolution" because it involves human intervention to accelerate the rate of naturally occurring evolutionary processes.


What is its purpose?

The purpose of AE is to change certain characteristics of an organism, in our case the coral’s resistance to environmental stress such as elevated temperature and ocean acidification. Right now, scientists at AIMS are working on AE in a number of coral species.

In AE we do not actively insert the genes from one species into another.



At AIMS, all AE work is being carried out in controlled nurseries of the National Sea Simulator, and it involves four approaches:

  1. Selective breeding;
  2. Manipulation of the composition of the microbial communities associated with corals;
  3. The evolution of some of these microbes towards enhanced stress resistance; and
  4. The pre-conditioning of corals to elevated environmental conditions with the aim to induce epigenetically* controlled stress tolerance that is passed on to the next generation.


So is AE the same as Genetic Modification?

No. As far as we know no one is yet attempting to create genetically modified corals for the purpose of coral reef conservation and restoration.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or genetically engineered (GE) organisms are organisms whose phenotypes have been altered by the insertion of foreign genetic material. Foreign genetic material is defined as genetic material that stems from another species.


So AE is a natural process?

Yes, in contrast to GM, AE is a natural process. It is encouraging evolution faster than usual. While the exchange of genes between unrelated species does occur occasionally in nature (e.g., between bacteria and mediated by viruses; from microbial endosymbionts to the host organism), the active insertion of genes from one species into another is not part of AE as we propose it.


Is Assisted Evolution controversial?

Some people say it is like playing God and have objections for ethical reasons. Others may say the ecological risks are unknown and therefore oppose the approach. Some may agree that against the backdrop of rapidly declining coral health worldwide, the development of tools to help protect corals from stress is urgent. For these exact reasons we are debating, testing, collaborating and opening up the discussion with the public, scientists, policy makers, coral reef managers and industry.


*Epigenetics is the study of biological mechanisms that will switch genes on and off.


Related stories:

Assisted Evolution: Giving some hope for coral reef survival