By Elizabeth Kolbert
The New Yorker
In 2013, a foundation run by Microsoft’s co-founder Paul Allen announced a contest called the Ocean Challenge. Researchers were asked for plans to counter the effects of rapid change. Ruth Gates thought about the corals she’d seen perish and the ones she’d seen pull through. What if the qualities that made some corals hardier than others could be identified? Perhaps this information could be used to produce tougher varieties. Humans might, in this way, design reefs capable of withstanding human influence.
Gates laid out her thoughts in a two-thousand-word essay. The prize for the contest was ten thousand dollars—barely enough to keep a research lab in pipette tips. But after Gates won she was invited to submit a more detailed plan. Last summer, the foundation awarded her and a collaborator in Australia, Madeleine van Oppen, four million dollars to pursue the idea. In news stories about the award, the project was described as an attempt to create a “super coral.” Gates and her graduate students embraced the term; one of the students drew, as a sort of logo for the effort, a coral colony with a red “S” on what might, anthropocentrically, be called its chest. Around the time the award was announced, Gates was named the director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.
“A lot of people want to go back to something,” she told me at one point. “They think, If we just stop doing things, maybe the reef will come back to what it was.”
“Really, what I am is a futurist,” she said at another. “Our project is acknowledging that a future is coming where nature is no longer fully natural.”
Picture: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – Pacific Region’s [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons