Reef researchers peer into the future

You would never suspect nine tanks full of corals could act as a crystal ball to reveal what a future Great Barrier Reef may look like.

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But as the natural wonder faces its worst coral bleaching event on record, a newly established experiment, dubbed Evolution 21, at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in Townsville may do just that.

Within the $40 million facility lies the Sea Simulator – a customisable collection of aquariums that can replicate changes in water temperature along with pH, sediment and nutrient levels.

“What we’re trying to do is get closer and closer to a real-world situation,” says SeaSim manager Craig Humphrey.

The nine tanks of Evolution 21 are broken down into present-day conditions and those projected for the years 2050 and 2100.

The animals’ responses will be studied, but the key to the work is its multi-generational nature, says principal research scientist Dr Nicole Webster.

“We’re looking at whether or not they can cope and whether or not the changes they put in place, either at a molecular DNA genetic level or just changes to their physiology, are inherited by the next generation,” she says.

Such epigenetic predictions, which suggest chemical changes to DNA can be passed on, have flowed into environmental science from medical fields.

Studies of post-war generations in Germany, for example, show the stress of war can be transferred to future generations through epigenetic markers.

The same thing could happen with coral.

The first reproductive cycle is expected from October and while the experiment is set up for five years, it could continue for 10.

“Come the end of this year we will start to have some really good indications of whether there has been acclimation and whether there’s been some level of genetic adaptation in the adults,” Dr Webster says.

At the end of the experiment researchers expect to have data on what’s likely to happen to the reef in future conditions.

“That’s the hope,” Mr Humphrey says.

“If we don’t have that, we’ll fail.”

The AIMS facility is also helping satisfy a “dire need” for data on the thresholds of marine life facing stresses from dredging.

Using LED lights, the teams recreate how sediment blocks sunlight for sea life below and how that life can “clean itself” of particles.

The data, which will be passed to bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, could have implications for future dredging projects.