Ultimately, we want to implement our project into the real world by releasing our modified algae into coral reef ecosystems. First, we would prepare our cultured corals in a laboratory water tank. While keeping the corals alive, we would then have to bleach them on purpose in order to eliminate their original bleaching-susceptible algae. After releasing our modified algae into the tank, we suspect that the corals will uptake and become bleaching resistant. Finally, we will transplant the corals with the modified symbiont into a marine coral reef ecosystem, where they will be able to thrive despite climate change.
Approximately one-eighth of the world's population, or 850 million people, live within 100 km of a coral reef. Our proposed end users are people who live near and rely on coral reef ecosystems. For example, the Northwest Hawaiian Island coral reefs in the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument are deteriorating. We would work with the researchers in the affected Hawaiian areas to culture and transplant our corals. We hope these researchers will participate in the transplantation of the corals and educate their community on the importance of maintaining coral reef ecosystems. By modifying the algae’s genome, the unknown long-term risks can pose an imminent danger to coral reef ecosystems and beyond. We’re concerned about the algae excessively outcompeting other valuable, unmodified algae and are looking into ways of preventing this. We've considered engineering a kill switch which would force cell death if the algae are exposed to a substance (or lack thereof). However, the challenge to consider when creating a kill switch is over time algal generations will evolve and mutate, thus potentially removing the safe guard.
Another issue to consider is the movement of our algae up the food chain. We are not considering introducing genes that code for foreign protein products into the algae. Instead, we simply want to upregulate genes that already exist in Symbiodinium. Because of this, the proteins should not be toxic to fish that are already consuming algae. However, we simply don’t understand the long term consequences of this. So, our project may be best used for studying the mechanisms behind coral bleaching. For example, if we introduce heat resistance into the algae, and the corals still bleach, then that will tell us that there’s more to the story than heat stress.
Genetically modifying algae to become coral bleaching resistant is a tremendous project that will require an integrative approach from several disciplines such as biology, chemistry, ecology, mathematics, and engineering. Although this will take a substantial amount of effort and collaboration, the cost of losing coral reefs will be too catastrophic to not try. Even if our modified algae are not implemented into the wild, our research will advance our understanding of the mechanisms behind coral bleaching. In the event that scientific consensus concludes that the burden of losing the reefs outweighs the effects of releasing GMO algae, then our research will have helped prevent the extinction of an ecosystem.