Scientists hope a new group of baby corals settled on the Great Barrier Reef could provide the key to creating a reef capable of withstanding climate change.
Researchers at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) have just rehomed a group of hybrid coral babies off the north-eastern coast of Australia in a first that they hope will save the reef. The "in-vitro" corals were grown in a lab and now, at the age of three months, scientists say they show signs of being able to cope with life in the wild and could potentially help build a more resilient reef.
The hybrid corals were raised in the, a giant lab full of tanks that scientists use to recreate conditions on the reef.
The lab features different tanks that can be precisely adjusted to recreate current conditions on the reef, as well as possible future conditions such as a "sea" with increased temperatures and ocean acidification that could mimic what life on the reef looks like in 50 or 100 years time.
The hybrid corals were created by fertilising organisms from different coral species, according to AIMS, a process which can occur in the wild. After being raised in a lab, AIMS hopes these hybrids may carry the genes to survive increased ocean temperatures. As ocean temperatures rise and marine life on the Great Barrier Reef becomes harder to sustain, these baby corals could grow up to be more suited to long-term life on the reef.
"Most corals in the wild are now living at the very top of their survival limit in terms of temperature," said Madeleine van Oppen, an ecological geneticist at AIMS.
"But these corals are showing promise; we have seen some coral hybrids grow and survive better under elevated temperature and acidity levels, compared to their parents."
And while the baby corals were grown in a lab and have never experienced their natural habitat, like all good children, they are returning to their family roots.
"They have shown resilience in the lab so now we have placed them back on reef where their parents were originally collected, to see how they survive in their natural environment."
If all goes well for the Class of 2019, which were settled in their new home last week, van Oppen says scientists will have a better idea of the risks and benefits of human intervention on the reef. And if the corals thrive, scientists may be one step closer to restoring one of the world's biggest and most spectacular natural wonders.