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Microsoft co-founder awards ocean acidification prize

Posted on behalf of Virginia Gewin. 

The Paul G. Allen Foundation, based in Seattle, Washington, has dipped its toes into ocean research funding, awarding a US$10,000 prize to researchers seeking to help coral reefs resist damage from ocean acidification.

Coral reefs are threatened by ocean acidification.

Coral reefs are threatened by ocean acidification.


Marine biologists Ruth Gates of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Madeline van Oppen of the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Queensland won for their proposal to test the effectiveness of implanting specially bred coral into existing reefs. The prize comes as the Allen Foundation, started by billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, begins a broad new programme to address declining ocean health.

Raechel Waters, the foundation’s ocean health programme officer, says that Gates and van Oppen’s plan appealed because it proposed a potentially scalable solution to ocean acidification — a global shift in ocean chemistry driven by rising carbon dioxide emissions. The world’s oceans have absorbed roughly two-thirds of the CO2 produced by human activities since the Industrial Revolution began; as a result, sea water is 30% more acidic now than it was then.

Corals are highly sensitive to that increase in ocean acidity, though their response varies by species and location. Gates and van Oppen have a multi-million dollar plan to selectively breed corals for traits that allow them to resist damage from pH shifts, and to determine whether such resilience can be induced in adult corals or offspring of parents exposed to acidic conditions. The two scientists have been invited to apply for further funding from the Allen Foundation.

“This hands-on manipulation of nature is a radical departure from traditional approaches in conservation,” says Gates. “We are at a crossroads with coral reefs — do we sit back and document their demise or come up with mechanisms to mitigate change?”

Allen, a noted yachtsman and diver, is one of two billionaires to back competitions to find solutions for ocean acidification.  Wendy Schmidt, the co-founder of the Schmidt Ocean Institute and the wife of Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, announced last month that she will award a pair of $1-million prizes: one for the most accurate ocean pH sensor and one for the best low-cost sensor.



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