Corals are responding to extreme environmental challenges by changing how they read and use their genetic code. These modifications, known as epigenetic modifications, don’t involve changes to the genetic code itself, just how genes are expressed. These modifications are also being passed on to future generations of coral. Pinpointing what these changes mean may hold the key to protecting coral.
Jose Eirin-Lopez from FIU’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education oversees the Environmental Epigenetics Lab as part of FIU’s Institute of Water and Environment and will work with a collaborative team of researchers from across the country. Studying coral in Mo’orea, French Polynesia, the team 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.
“We’re the product of the environment in which we live and interact,” said Eirin-Lopez. “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.”
Eirin-Lopez and the team 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.
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.
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.