red coral image

Towards progressive coral reef conservation and restoration

Share this:

01 March 2017

It has been almost two years since researchers at AIMS, led by prominent geneticist Prof Madeleine van Oppen, embarked on an exciting journey to explore the novel application of human-assisted evolution to reef building corals.


Prof Madeleine van Oppen and Dr Lesa Peplow working together in the molecular biology laboratory.

Through various treatments including selective breeding and manipulation of microbes associated with corals – ‘AE’ offers an approach to enhancing the resilience of corals. Following on from a successful international workshop of experts, researchers have now moved the conversation forward and delivered a framework for determining how best to integrate assisted evolution into progressive restoration initiatives.


A one-year-old hybrid coral juvenile (A. sarmentosa x A.florida) is being reared in the National Sea Simulator to reproductive maturity. Once achieved, the researchers will conduct hybrid intercrosses and backcrosses with the parental species. Image: AIMS/W.Chan

And, this advance could not have come at a better time. Following on from 2016’s severe mass coral bleaching event, scientists are once again witnessing bleaching, this time in the previously minimally affected reefs of the central Great Barrier Reef, raising questions about the Reefs ability to naturally adapt to our rapidly warming oceans and recover between disturbances.

In an article published today in the journal Global Change Biology, Prof van Oppen and her colleagues discuss what is achievable through modern coral reef restoration strategies.

They argue that in a future that is characterised by rapid climate change, natural rates of stress tolerance evolution are too slow to maintain functioning coral reef ecosystems. Assisted evolution is proposed as an approach that addresses this need by enhancing environmental stress tolerance of coral reefs.

“The 2014-2016 global coral bleaching event testifies to the urgency of interventionist approaches such as assisted evolution in corals,” said Prof van Oppen.


Dr Lesa Peplow and Ms Wing Chan carefully look after laboratory-reared hybrid baby corals at the National Sea Simulator.

On a path towards leading-edge coral reef conservation and restoration, the authors identify critical climate resilience traits of corals and propose a 'decision tree' for coral reef restoration, including the use of assisted evolution as a mechanism to enhance resilience of coral stock used in restoration efforts.

Then they put their innovative thinking to the test, presenting a hypothetical example of how the proposed decision tree might function following the 2016 Great Barrier Reef coral bleaching event. This practical exploration highlights important limitations and knowledge gaps, and acknowledges innovative coral reef restoration approaches, such as AE, are still in the proof-of-concept stage of development.

Backed by a prestigious grant from the Paul Allen Foundation, and more recent funding from the Australian Research Council, Prof van Oppen’s research team, alongside international collaborators, are continuing to make promising strides towards understanding the role that assisted evolution can play in modern restoration practice.

The paper ‘Shifting paradigms in restoration of the world’s coral reefs’ by van Oppen et al. is now available online.


Read more here about how AIMS research is enhancing the evolutionary potential and climate resilience of coral reefs for conservation and management.

For more information, please contact:

Professor Madeleine van Oppen

Senior Research Scientist

Australian Institute of Marine Science/University of Melbourne

+61 3 8344 8286; +61 0 409 267 577

(Australian Eastern Standard Time, +10 hrs)