Ruth Gates is a UK coral reef biologist and marine conservationist who is most remembered for advocating for the breeding of "super corals" that can withstand the effects of global warming and replenish corals that are rapidly deteriorating throughout the world.
Gates, who died of cancer aged 56 years, is the director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He survived his wife, Robin Burton-Gates.
Gates grew up in Kent and said he was first transfixed by coral reefs through color TV films by sea explorer Jacques Cousteau. "Even though Cousteau came on television, he launched an ocean in a way that no one else could," he told New Yorker in 2016.
At the age of 11, he said that he knew he wanted to become a marine biologist. He went on to get a doctorate in marine biology, published dozens of scientific papers and, in 2015, became the first woman to be elected president of the International Society for the Study of Corals. He also appeared in last year's Emmy-winning Netflix documentary Chasing Coral and become a frequent commentator in the media about coral conservation and the effects of climate change.
"Corals seem to be the most complicated organisms on the planet, so if I can understand them, I can understand the others," he explained earlier this year in a video for the University of Hawaii Foundation, a fundraising organization for the UH system.
Like all coral biologists, Gates studied lost organisms. During his career, he witnessed deaths of about one third to half of the world's reefs when the species was hit by pollution, ocean acidification and rising temperatures, according to scientific estimates.
Corals are small animals, anemones that often live in large colonies made of thousands of individuals or genetically identical polyps. Like their relatives, coral polyps have tentacles that are armed with stinging cells that can catch small pieces of food from water.
Most corals have a symbiotic relationship with small algae that live in their tissues. And like plants, these algae can use energy from sunlight to build the sugar they share with their animal hosts. It was an intimate relationship between different species that made Gates confused and fascinated, so he decided to study coral specifically to try to understand symbiosis at the molecular level.
Gates arrived in Jamaica for postgraduate field work in 1985, just in time to watch this symbiotic relationship cut off. In 1987, the Caribbean had one of the first major coral bleaching events, in which colorful animals usually suddenly lost their algal partners, and their white calcium carbonate skeleton became visible through their relatively clear tissue. Gates's early work on animals helped biologists understand that such bleaching was a severe version of a process controlled by normal temperature.
He held an academic position at the University of California in Los Angeles before moving in 2003 to the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology (Himb), where he became director in 2015. In Hawaii, having coral reefs living right in his backyard meant direct access to research experiments.
The bravest of its efforts involved "super corals" – which were specifically selected and raised because of their ability to survive in warmer and more acidic waters which are expected to occur in the future due to climate change. This was an idea that originated from Gates' initial work on coral bleaching, and his observation that no matter how bad the bleaching event was, some individual corals always survived.
In 2013, he won a $ 10,000 (£ 7,618) essay competition sponsored by a foundation run by Microsoft founder Paul Allen to develop innovative ideas to reduce ocean acidification quickly.
Backed by victory, he then submitted a detailed plan with Madeleine van Oppen from the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences who in 2015 collected them a $ 4 million grant from the foundation.
"Knowing that the time was short to save the reef and humanity, Ruth saw an opportunity in coral breeding that not only survived previous difficulties, but developed in difficult conditions," said Brian Taylor, dean of the University of Hawaii at Manoa Sea and Earth School. Science and Technology, which oversees the Hawaiian Institute. "His laboratory determines what properties make some corals better than others, and strengthens those traits through selective breeding."
Gates called it "accelerating natural selection". The level of change in the environment has basically exceeded the capacity of the reef itself to adapt, "he said in the 2018 UH Foundation video.
He identifies the most difficult corals by choosing those who survive in hotter waters in the laboratory and work to breed them to create even more resilient corals. This is like a process where farmers cultivate harder crops. In the end, he said, these "super corals" could be used to fill reefs after mass deaths, such as those experienced in recent years by the Great Barrier Reef off the northeast coast of Australia.
This project was in its fourth year and has caused several scientific publications but, according to Himb's colleagues, it had just taken off. In addition to the selection and breeding of resilient corals, project members continue to study how resistance is passed from generation to generation and investigate the possibility of injecting corals with algae strains and other heat-resistant symbiotic organisms (such as "coral probiotics"). These projects are now in the hands of students and colleagues.
Gates's vision invited criticism from several scientific communities.
"I find it implausible that we will succeed in a few years, evolution has not been successful for the past several hundred million years," Ken Caldeira, a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, told the New Yorker in 2016. "There the idea that there must be easy technological improvements, if only we were creative enough to find it. I don't think I think that's true. "
Others think super coral is diverted from more important goals, such as cutting carbon emissions. "Let's put our energy and resources into something we know will make a difference," said the late Paul Jokiel, a colleague of Himb, Newsweek in 2016.
Gates pushed but did not consider his plan the only viable choice, friends said publication. "I don't really care about & # 39; in this case," he told New Yorker. "I care about what happens to the reef. If I can do something that will help preserve it and perpetuate it in the future, I will do everything I can. "
Ruth Deborah Gates was born in Akrotiri, Cyprus, on March 28, 1962. She grew up in Kent where she attended boarding school while her parents traveled for her father's work in military intelligence. His mother was trained as a physical therapist.
At the University of Newcastle on Tyne, near the North Sea, he received a bachelor's degree in 1984 and received a doctorate in 1990, both in marine biology.
In September, he married his friend for four years. Apart from his wife, the survivors included a brother.
Gates often noted the resistance he encountered as a young woman who aspired to a career in science, and she became a loyal supporter of her students regardless of sex. When elected as president of the International Society for Reef Studies, one of his first actions was to diversify his staff. He is known in the community for his crippling charisma, soothing British accent that was forged by hard grit through his training as a martial artist. He has got a black belt in karate.
"I have seen some corals destroyed before my eyes," he told Times Higher Education Supplement in 2016. "I cannot accept the idea that future generations might not experience coral reefs. Its mission is to start solving problems, not just learning them. "
Ruth Gates, a biologist, born March 28, 1962, died October 25, 2018
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