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Study Shows Coral Genomes Could Adapt to Climate Change

October 15, 2010

Study Shows Coral Genomes Could Adapt to Climate Change

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When UC Merced biology Professor
Mónica Medinaand her team learned that a group from Penn State was undertaking coral larvae research in Florida similar to their own research in Mexico, she decided to reach out to them.

“I said, ‘Well let’s just find out what they’re doing, and maybe we can compare our results,’” Medina said. “It sort of developed from that.”

The teams found each other through their respective blogs, and what developed was a
research publicationthat showed, for the first time, that coral genomes differ depending on their geographic location and that they may be adaptive enough to cope with changing environmental conditions.

The paper was co-authored by Medina — a past winner of the National Science Foundation’s
Faculty Early Career Development(CAREER) Award and the
Presidential Early Career Awardfor Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) — and Penn State Professor Iliana Baums, in collaboration with several of their lab members.

Both lab groups were studying the effects of thermal stress on coral larvae and whether there is a genetic component to how the larvae respond to heat — the goal being to determine how the larvae will hold up as climate change leads to increased sea surface temperatures in the future.

But the fact that they were in different locations added further depth to their studies. And because coral spawning — which produces the larvae needed for study — happens only at a very specific time each year, the projects were basically consistent except for their locations.

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“This situation gave us the opportunity to compare these two different populations from Florida and from Mexico under similar conditions,” Medina said. “It turned out that there is a very strong geographic component to the response (to thermal stress). So in other words, the populations from Mexico may not respond the same way as the populations from Florida, and that needs to be taken into consideration when we design future conservation strategies.”

Simply capturing the gametes needed to produce the larvae to study is a challenge in itself, Medina explained. Coral spawning is a rare occurrence that is linked to sea surface temperature and the lunar cycle. Roughly once a year, near the end of summer, about a week after the full moon and a few hours after sunset, the show begins.

“We put the nets out, and then we sit around and wait for several hours on the boat,” Medina said. “And nothing happens, nothing happens, and suddenly it’s just madness in the reef. (The coral) is releasing the gametes, and it’s beautiful. It’s really, really striking.”