Exploring selective breeding as a strategy to increase thermal resilience of reef-building corals

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Coral reefs are among the most biodiverse ecosystems and the services they provide are valued at 10 trillion USD per year. Their evolutionary success is attributed to productive symbioses between coral animals, photosynthetic endosymbionts, and beneficial bacteria which grow the living foundation of the ecosystem. However, coral symbioses are very sensitive to changes in the environment and are negatively impacted by the effects of climate change. Anomalously warm temperatures cause coral bleaching, coral starvation, and death. Warm water bleaching events have contributed to significant losses of coral cover and coral reefs recently suffered their third global die-off due to rising sea temperatures. Some regions are now experiencing several bleaching events per decade, which hinders their ability to recover from these disturbances. The future persistence of coral reefs is dependent on evolutionary responses to warming, yet there is widespread concern that rates of warming will outpace the adaptive capacity of the coral host and lead to extinctions and ecosystem losses. These concerns have prompted calls for unconventional conservation strategies that accelerate adaptation by producing genotypes with enhanced heat tolerance through selective breeding. Here, I provide an overview of our current research on selective breeding in corals and discuss its potential as a mechanism for fast-tracking the evolutionary adaptation of reef-building corals to increasing temperatures.

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Víctor M. Eguíluz

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