New paper: public response to genetically engineered coral using synthetic biology

December 21st, 2021

A team of social scientists has investigated the factors that influence public support for the development of genetically engineered coral.

Increases in sea surface temperatures have led to widespread and consecutive coral bleaching events in recent years, including on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

There is scientific consensus that reducing greenhouse gas emissions, leading to fewer impacts, is the main goal in protecting the Reef. But scientists acknowledge that any large-scale institutional changes will also need to be accompanied by a suite of solutions—that can effectively restore large areas of coral habitats—if we are to combat the current rate of coral depletion worldwide.

Scientists, including at CSIRO, have been investigating the potential contribution of synthetic biology-enabled solutions, such as breeding coral with higher heat tolerance to survive hotter conditions and reduce the impact of coral bleaching events on this World Heritage protected site.

Now, a team of social scientists at CSIRO’s Synthetic Biology Future Science Platform, led by Dr Aditi Mankad, have undertaken work to understand factors that influence public support for the development of genetically engineered coral using synthetic biology as a complementary solution to coral loss – a solution that may be used in parallel with traditional conservation methods. They also investigated public willingness to visit parts of the Great Barrier Reef where genetically engineered coral had (hypothetically) been introduced.

“The study showed that of the 1,148 participants, almost 60% were in favour of supporting the development of a synthetic biology solution to coral loss in the Great Barrier Reef. Support was primarily influenced by a belief that a synthetic biology solution had the potential to be significantly more effective in mitigating the coral loss problem than current approaches,” said Dr Mankad.

“However, being a future-oriented technology meant that participants also felt a high level of uncertainty about potential risks associated with implementing the technology compared to its possible advantages. Overall, perceived benefits of the technology and technology effectiveness in reducing or eliminating coral reef loss were more important in influencing public support than potential risks.”

Dr Mankad and her team also explained that novel synthetic biology solutions such as heat tolerant coral are still at least a decade away from being ready to use.

“Real-world implementation of this technology would require engagement with local communities who live close to, and use, the reef for their livelihoods, as well as more formal regulatory approval. Our research is an important first step in considering if, how, when and where the technology should be implemented to help the Reef”.


  • Mankad, A., Hobman, E.V. & Carter, L. (2021), Genetically Engineering Coral for Conservation: Psychological Correlates of Public Acceptability,  Front. Mar. Sci. |
  • Buerger, C. Alvarez-Roa, C. W. Coppin, S. L. Pearce, L. J. Chakravarti, J. G. Oakeshott, O. R. Edwards, M. J. H. van Oppen. (2020), Heat-evolved microalgal symbionts increase coral bleaching tolerance. Sci. Adv. 6. |

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