Climate: Genetic study shows some corals may have fighting chance to survive warmer oceans

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Can a genetic ‘mix-and-match effort save some coral species from global warming? Photo courtesy NOAA.

Mixing and matching corals from different latitudes may boost reef survival

Staff Report

FRISCO — If global warming can be capped at a reasonable level, some coral reefs may have a fighting chance to adapt to warmer ocean waters, according to new genetic research.

The new study suggests some coral species already have genetic variants necessary to tolerate warm ocean waters, and humans can help to spread these genes, said a team of scientists from The University of Texas at Austin, the Australian Institute of Marine Science and Oregon State University.

The finding, published this week in Science, have implications for many reefs now threatened by global warming and shows for the first time that mixing and matching corals from different latitudes may boost reef survival.

During the study, biologists crossed corals from warmer areas of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia with corals from a cooler latitude nearly 300 miles to the south. The coral larvae from the warmer areas to the north were up to 10 times as likely to survive heat stress, compared with those with parents from the south.

Using genomic tools, the researchers identified the biological processes responsible for heat tolerance and demonstrated that heat tolerance could evolve rapidly based on existing genetic variation.

“Our research found that corals do not have to wait for new mutations to appear. Averting coral extinction may start with something as simple as an exchange of coral immigrants to spread already existing genetic variants,” said Mikhail Matz, an associate professor of integrative biology at The University of Texas at Austin. “Coral larvae can move across oceans naturally, but humans could also contribute, relocating adult corals to jump-start the process.”

Many coral reefs around the world have been badly damaged by rising sea surface temperatures. But some species have a higher tolerance for warmer temperatures, though until now, no one understood why some adapted differently than others.

“This discovery adds to our understanding of the potential for coral to cope with hotter oceans,” said Line Bay, an evolutionary ecologist with the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Townsville.

Reef-building corals from species in the northern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea are similar to those used in the study. There, too, reefs may benefit from conservation and restoration efforts that protect the most heat-tolerant corals and prioritize them for any restoration initiatives involving artificial propagation.

“This is occasion for hope and optimism about coral reefs and the marine life that thrive there,” Matz said.

In addition to Matz and Bay, the study’s authors were Groves Dixon, Sarah Davies and Galina Aglyamova at UT Austin and Eli Meyer of Oregon State University. The study was supported by funds from the National Science Foundation and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

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