Ruth Gates

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Director of the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology Ruth Gates and her team are racing against time and climate change to breed corals that can withstand future ocean conditions and that can be used to restore and build resilience in our reefs. Part of that work involves figuring out why healthy brown corals thrive while those growing right next door turn white or bleach, a sign of stress.

Said Gates, “Everybody is affected by it here in Hawaiʻi because the reef is intimately linked to our health and our economy.”

Gates has multi-million dollar support for her world-class research from a number of prominent sources. In August, a company formed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen called Vulcan announced a $4-million dollar investment into Gates’ and a collaborator’s research.

“She’s been working in the field for 25 years, amassing this knowledge of coral so that now, in this moment in time, we can really make a difference and accelerate the resiliency of corals, it’s a phenomenal opportunity,” said Janet Greenlee director of philanthropic communications of Vulcan Inc.

Other support came earlier in the form of a powerful confocal microscope, funded by a million-dollar 2009 donation from philanthropist Pam Omidyar. This powerful tool provides new insights into corals and the marine microorganisms that interact with them. Healthy corals display vibrant, vivid colors. Stressed corals literally pale by comparison.

Shared responsibility for the environment

Gates’ team is working to build a bank of coral stocks that are preconditioned to withstand the warmer and more acidic ocean conditions of the future. She emphasizes that everyone shares responsibility for the environment.

“The thing that we need to really stress is that if you see bleached corals, don’t step on them,” said Gates. “If you see someone allowing runoff to come into the waters and there is muddy water going over the reef, ask them to stop doing it or report it if its a developer. Do everything you can to keep the environment around the reefs as clean as possible and as untouched as possible.”

As Gates sees it, the earth’s future depends on it.

More on Ruth Gates

After the worst coral bleaching event ever recorded in Hawaiʻi, the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa is diligently monitoring and testing affected coral reefs in Kaneohe Bay. Read more

Three key University of Hawaiʻi staff contributed to Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa exploration and research at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in June. Read more

—By Kelli Trifonovitch