Image: Anna Roik

Climate rapid test for corals funded

Save the corals: The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation funds the University of Konstanz rapid test “CBASS” to assess the climate resilience of corals with a total of 4 million dollars

In the middle of the vast oceans, a mobile rapid test examines the thermotolerance of corals and their chances to survive the impacts of climate change. The test results will be used to protect coral reefs more effectively from global warming. Around a year ago, in June 2020, Professor Christian Voolstra, a biologist from Konstanz, presented his idea for the mobile rapid test CBASS “Coral Bleaching Automated Stress System” to determine the corals’ resilience to increasing temperatures. Now the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation announced that they support the research project with a total of 4 million dollars (around 3.3 million euros). The next step in the CBASS project will be to identify diagnostic molecular markers for the development of a rapid antigen test.

The funds will be provided in the context of a new grant programme by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, totalling 7.2 million dollars for research projects to help corals survive the climate crisis. The grant supports researchers “to build on their successful initial research and enter into phase two, turning innovative ideas into scalable, sustainable solutions for coral reefs”, the foundation writes in its press release.

Along the University of Konstanz, Old Dominion University (USA), the Institute for Systems Biology (USA), Pennsylvania State University (USA) as well as the Australian Institute of Marine Science are partners in the project.

Heat-tolerant corals
Over the last 50 years, half of the world’s coral reefs have died in the face of climate change. Experts project even climate warming of “only” 1.5 degree Celsius will make coral go nearly extinct by the end of this century. Some coral, however, can handle rising ocean temperatures better than their peers. Christian Voolstra wants to find out which factors contribute to this superior thermotolerance and how their resilience can be systematically promoted. The mobile testing system CBASS, which he helped to develop, can contribute to identifying, studying and protecting such heat-tolerant coral.

“Our project ‘Global Search’ now focuses on identifying molecular markers with which we can identify heat-tolerant corals in a scalable manner”, Voolstra explains. “Based on these markers we can then develop rapid antigen tests, similar to the currently used rapid tests for COVID-19. These rapid tests can be used in coral reefs anywhere in the world, require no expert knowledge and help us identify “climate change survivors’, that is colonies with the highest odds of survival, that can then be used for conservation and restoration programmes,” says Voolstra.

Stress testing “coral in a box”
The rapid test “Coral Bleaching Automated Stress System” (CBASS), co-developed by Christian Voolstra, makes it possible to assess coral thermotolerance on site and within a single day – much faster than current experimental procedures that typically take several weeks to months in a laboratory. Comparable to an electrocardiogram stress test, the corals undergo a thermotolerance stress test following a standardized procedure. Comparing the results to those of thousands of other coral tests makes it possible to quickly assess the characteristics of the coral tested.

The test boxes can be built from ordinary materials available nearly everywhere, so they can easily be reproduced and used anywhere in the world. Instructions for building the test boxes, data sets as well as evaluation methods are freely available online.

About the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation
The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation was founded by Jody Allen and the late Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft. Today, the foundation supports a global portfolio of frontline partners working to preserve ocean health, protect wildlife, combat climate change, and strengthen communities. A new grant programme is dedicated to conserving corals and saving them from extinction.

Key facts:

  • Paul G. Allen Family Foundation funds the mobile testing system CBASS (“Coral Bleaching Automated Stress System”) to assess the thermotolerance of corals with 4 million dollars (around 3.3 million euros)
  • Funding in the context of the foundation’s new grant programme totalling 7.2 million dollars for research projects to conserve coral reefs around the globe
  • CBASS is a research project headed by Professor Christian Voolstra, professor of genetics of adaptation in aquatic systems at the University of Konstanz
  • Participating institutions: University of Konstanz, Old Dominion University (USA), Institute for Systems Biology (USA), Pennsylvania State University (USA), Australian Institute of Marine Science (Australia)
  • Instructions for building the CBASS test boxes as well as access to all associated data and analytical pipelines are freely available online.