Corals are up against extreme environmental challenges. The battle is at the molecular level.

Sea temperatures are rising. Oceans are acidifying. Corals are dying. But they are trying to fight back by changing how they read and use their genetic code.

These epigenetic modifications don’t involve changes to the genetic code itself, just how genes are expressed and these modifications are being passed on to future generations.

While epigenetics has been studied in other living organisms, it hasn’t been widely studied in coral. FIU molecular biologist Jose Eirin-Lopez is changing that. With a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Understanding the Rules of Life (URoL): Epigenetics program, Eirin-Lopez and researchers from across the U.S. are investigating the epigenetic modifications happening in coral.

“We’re the product of the environment in which we live and interact,” said Eirin-Lopez, who oversees FIU’s Environmental Epigenetics Lab. “This project is so important because epigenetic marks are responsible for how these organisms respond or interact with their changing environment. Many living things may not be able to cope with such a fast-changing environment. Unless we have all of the information, we’re not going to be able to effectively stop the loss of corals.”

Jose Eirin-Lopez

Generally, epigenetics explores how all living things respond to their environment. DNA is the rulebook or manual for life. Environmental factors, such as temperature, control what sections of the manual will be used. This process is guided by epigenetic markers or bookmarks, which determine how the rules are read and what adaptations occur. Over time, these markers become a record. They tell the story of what environmental stressors a living organism has experienced in the past. These experiences are then passed down from parent to offspring.

This kind of research can only take place in few places on the planet. Places where corals are healthy and untouched by disease. So, Eirin-Lopez and the team are heading to Mo’orea, in remote French Polynesia. They will look at what happens when corals are exposed to higher temperatures for a specific length of time and what epigenetic modifications are made and then passed down to their offspring.

They hope to pinpoint patterns and understand whether the offspring are better equipped to live in higher temperatures, because of the experience of their parents. It’s this data that will be critical to informing future preservation for coral that extends past the short-term solution of ‘rescuing’ coral and safeguarding it in temperature-controlled tanks in labs and aquariums.

In addition to FIU, the collaborative team also includes researchers from the Shedd Aquarium, University of Rhode Island, University of Washington and University of California, Santa Barbara.


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