Should We Genetically Engineer Coral?
The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) hosts more than a thousand coral species and contributes billions of dollars to the Australian economy every year. Since 2013, the public has become more aware of, and concerned about, the harms facing coral. Over the same period, however, we have seen alarming amounts of coral loss. This is mostly due to environmental factors, like rising seawater temperatures. This causes coral bleaching, where coral loses its algae and turns white. Bleaching puts coral at greater risk of death.
One possible way to combat coral loss is through the use of synthetic biology. This involves redesigning coral DNA (in other words, the molecules that make up the coral’s genetic material). Specifically, coral could be altered to withstand higher temperatures — producing “heat resistant coral.” As with any new technology, the use of synthetic biology depends on how the public responds to it.
In this study, researchers studied public perception of heat-resistant coral among 1,148 Australian adults who were representative of the national population. Participants received educational information about the problem of coral loss in the GBR and the possible solution of heat-resistant coral. The participants indicated their knowledge of the issue and their support for this technology on a scale from 1–5, with 1 meaning “would not support” and 5 meaning “would strongly support.” They then gave reasons for their rating.
Most respondents said they had not heard of gene editing before. However, after viewing the educational information, 59% of Australians supported the use of heat-resistant coral (rating support as a 4 or 5). About 30% of people were moderately supportive (rating support as a 3), while 11% of people indicated less or no support (with a rating of 2 or less).
Several common themes were discussed by people who expressed support for the use of heat-resistant coral:
- Positive Beliefs: 55% of respondents mentioned the possible benefits of the technology, such as saving the reef and helping marine animals.
- Action-Focused: 7% of respondents argued that it’s important to act now to provide a fast solution, especially since humans are to blame for coral loss.
- Ambivalence: 5% of respondents were supportive but still unsure of the technology. They wanted to be more certain that there would be no negative consequences before giving their full support.
- Confidence In Science: 2% of respondents shared that they supported heat-resistant coral because they trusted the technology and the scientists working on it.
Other respondents were more skeptical. The common themes they discussed were:
- Negative Beliefs: 14% of respondents were generally concerned about the potential risks and unknown negative consequences of heat-resistant coral.
- Naturalness Concerns: 7% of respondents objected to synthetic biology because it is ‘unnatural.’ In other words, they felt humans should leave nature alone.
- Focus On The Problem: 5% of participants thought that engineered coral would not address the right problem. They said we should try to address the underlying cause of rising temperatures (global warming) rather than using a “band-aid” solution.
- Prior Examples: 2% of respondents brought up similar stories of new technology that had backfired in the past.
Some respondents also said they had low levels of knowledge or understanding of the technology, or that they wanted more scientific evidence about it before giving an opinion. People who shared these beliefs typically did not lean one way or another in terms of their support. It should also be noted that the educational information participants received only talked about the positives of synthetic biology, and did not consider any potential downsides. This may partially explain why so many people supported its use.
Synthetic biology is a new and potentially helpful tool that could benefit the GBR and the sea life it supports. Moving forward, it’ll be important to keep the views of the public in mind to secure their support in the future. Researchers and stakeholders can do this by making sure that the design and use of synthetic biology lines up with the public’s expectations. In particular, they should stay engaged with residents who live near the GBR, or rely on it for their livelihood.
The results are encouraging as most participants already seem at least partially supportive of heat-resistant coral. Given the concerns of people in this study, however, it seems important to be honest about the potential benefits and risks of synthetic biology and its use to sustain coral reefs. Better understanding of the problem and higher confidence in the science both appear helpful to gain support. Advocates could play an important role by helping to educate the public on the usefulness of heat-resistant coral.