Ruth Gates: Marine biologist who worked on breeding a 'super coral'

In her career, scientist and conservationist Ruth Gates witnessed the death of up to half of the world's coral. She advocated 'accelerating natural selection' of the organism – cultivating the toughest to ultimately replenish reefs battered by pollution and climate change

Christie Wilco
Thursday 08 November 2018 10:52
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Ruth Gates: coral reef conservationist explains the importance of reef ecosystem care

Ruth Gates was the British coral reef biologist and marine conservationist best remembered for advocating the breeding of a “super coral” that could resist the effects of global warming and replenish rapidly deteriorating reefs worldwide.

Gates, who died of cancer aged 56, was director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She is survived by her wife Robin Burton-Gates.

Gates grew up in Kent and said she first became transfixed by coral reefs through the colour TV films of sea explorer Jacques Cousteau. “Even though Cousteau was coming through the television, he unveiled the oceans in a way that nobody else had been able to,” she told the New Yorker in 2016.

By 11, she said she knew she wanted to be a marine biologist. She went on to obtain a doctorate in marine biology, publish dozens of scientific papers and, in 2015, become the first woman elected president of the International Society for Reef Studies. She also appeared in last year’s Emmy-winning Netflix documentary Chasing Coral and became a frequent commentator in the media on reef conservation as well as the effects of climate change.

“Corals seem to be the most complicated organisms on the planet, so if I can understand them, I can understand everything else,” she explained earlier this year in a video for the University of Hawaii Foundation, a fundraising organisation for the UH system.

Like all coral biologists, Gates studied a vanishing organism. Over the course of her career, she witnessed the death of roughly one third to one half of the world’s reefs as the species was battered by pollution, acidifying oceans and rising temperatures, according to scientific estimates.

Corals are tiny, anemone-like animals that often live in huge colonies made from thousands of genetically identical individuals or polyps. Like their kin, coral polyps have tentacles armed with stinging cells that can capture microscopic bits of food from the water.

Most corals have a symbiotic relationship with tiny algae that live inside their tissues. And like plants, these algae are able to use the energy from sunlight to build sugars that they share with their animal hosts. It was this intimate relationship between such different species that perplexed and fascinated Gates, so she decided to study corals specifically to try to understand the symbiosis at the molecular level.

Gates arrived in Jamaica for graduate fieldwork in 1985, just in time to witness this symbiotic relationship break down. In 1987, the Caribbean had one of the first major coral bleaching events, where the normally colourful animals suddenly lose their algal partners, and their white calcium carbonate skeletons become visible through their relatively clear tissues. Gates’ early work on the animals helped biologists understand that such bleaching was a severe version of a normal temperature-driven process.

She held academic positions at the University of California at Los Angeles before moving in 2003 to the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (Himb), where she became director in 2015. In Hawaii, having a living coral reef right in her backyard meant immediate access for research experimentation.

The boldest of her endeavours involved “super corals” – ones that have been specifically selected and bred for their abilities to withstand the warmer, more acidic waters predicted to occur in the future because of climate change. It’s an idea that stemmed from Gates’ early work on coral bleaching, and her observations that no matter how bad a bleaching event was, some individual corals always survived.

In 2013, she won a $10,000 (£7,618) essay competition sponsored by a foundation run by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to develop innovative ideas to mitigate rapidly acidifying oceans.

Buoyed by the win, she later submitted a detailed plan with Madeleine van Oppen of the Australian Institute of Marine Science that in 2015 garnered them a $4m grant from the foundation.

“Knowing that time is short to save corals and humanity, Ruth saw opportunity in breeding corals that have not only survived prior hardships, but thrived under tough conditions,” said Brian Taylor, dean of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, which oversees the Hawaii Institute. “Her lab is determining what traits make some corals better survivors than others, and reinforcing those traits through selective breeding.”

Gates referred to it as “accelerating natural selection“. The rates of change in the environment have essentially outpaced the capacity of the corals themselves to adapt,” she said in the 2018 UH Foundation video.

She identified the toughest coral by choosing ones that survived hotter waters in the lab and was working on breeding those to create corals that are even more resilient. It’s much like the process by which farmers bred hardier crops. Ultimately, she said, these “super corals” could be used to replenish reefs after mass die-offs, like the ones experienced in recent years by the Great Barrier Reef off northeastern Australia.

The project is in its fourth year and had led to several scientific publications but, according to Himb colleagues, it was just getting off the ground. In addition to the selection and breeding of resilient corals, members of the project are continuing to study how resilience is passed from generation to generation and investigating the possibility of inoculating corals with more heat-tolerant strains of algae and other symbiotic organisms (a sort of “coral probiotics”). The projects are now in the hands of her students and colleagues.

Gates’ vision drew criticism from some in the scientific community.

“I find it implausible that we’re going to succeed in doing in a couple of years what evolution hasn’t succeeded at over the past few hundred million years,” Ken Caldeira, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, told the New Yorker in 2016. “There’s this idea that there should be some easy techno-fix, if only we could be creative enough to find it. I guess I just don’t think that’s true.”

Others thought super corals distracted from more important goals, such as cutting carbon emissions. “Let’s put our energy and resources into something that we know will make a difference,” the late Paul Jokiel, an Himb colleague, told Newsweek in 2016.

Gates was driven but did not consider her plan the only viable option, friends told publications. “I don’t really care about the ‘me’ in this,” she told the New Yorker. “I care about what happens to corals. If I can do something that will help preserve them and perpetuate them into the future, I’m going to do everything I can.”

Ruth Deborah Gates was born in Akrotiri, Cyprus, on March 28, 1962. She grew up mostly in Kent where she attended a boarding school while her parents travelled for her father’s work in military intelligence. Her mother trained as a physical therapist.

At the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, near the North Sea, she received a bachelor’s degree in 1984 and received a doctorate in 1990, both in marine biology.

In September, she married her companion of four years. In addition to her wife, survivors include a brother.

Gates often noted the resistance she encountered as a young woman aspiring to a career in science, and she became a staunch advocate for her students regardless of sex. When elected president of the International Society for Reef Studies, one of her first actions was to diversify its staff. She was known in the community for her disarming charisma, a soothing English accent tempered by fierce grit through her training as a martial artist. She had attained a black belt in karate.

“I have watched some reefs disintegrate before my eyes,” she told the Times Higher Education Supplement in 2016. “I just can’t bear the idea that future generations may not experience a coral reef. The mission is to start solving the problem, not just study it.”

Ruth Gates, biologist, born 28 March 1962, died 25 October 2018

© Washington Post

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