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Research Highlight: Gene discovered for heat tolerance in corals

In a world first, AIMS’ coral genetic engineering team conclusively identified a gene involved in heat tolerance in coral.

During coral spawning in 2018, the team studied a well-recognised regulator of the heat stress response in other organisms, known as HSF-1. By introducing mutations and disrupting the function of the

HSF-1 gene, the team demonstrated that at elevated temperatures treatment coral larvae died whereas control larvae survived.

Genetic engineering was revolutionised less than 15 years ago with the application of CRISPR-Cas9 technology that allows very precise edits at the nucleotide level. These edits introduce mutations that disrupt the function of genes. This results in ‘knock-down’ organisms that are no longer able to use this gene and thus lose the function for which it codes.

AIMS, in partnership with Stanford University and QUT, is a global leader in the application of CRISPR-Cas9 technology to understand how coral genes function. By observing how knock-down corals perform under stress, AIMS researchers are seeking to identify the genes that underpin a variety of key coral traits important for adaptation to climate change.

In 2018, AIMS published the first paper (https://www.pnas.org/content/115/20/5235) to report successful application of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing tool on coral, and has further refined its approach over the last three years. During coral spawning in November 2019, the team knocked out a gene involved in calcification, attempted to enhance heat tolerance in corals for the first time, and tested the role of many more genes believed to be important in bleaching. This world leading research contributes to AIMS’ scientific excellence and is aligned to our strategic targets of year-on-year improvement in science excellence, and remaining in the top three marine science research institutions in the world.

Identifying genes that promote tolerance to heat and bleaching is crucial for most of the coral adaptation approaches proposed under the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP) for the Great Barrier Reef. The immediate role of genetic engineering in RRAP is to identify targets of existing natural variation to underpin aquaculture breeding programs, although it is possible that genetic engineering may be used to enhance tolerance in corals in the future.