RAPID: COLLABORATIVE RESEARCH: Interaction between genotype and acquired environmental modifications during coral responses to extreme climatic events Irma and Maria

Project: Research project

Project Details


After the impact of two consecutive category 5 hurricanes in less than a month, Puerto Rico is (for a narrow window of time) the world's best natural laboratory to study the effects of extreme weather episodes on coral reefs and the mechanisms underlying coral acclimatory responses to global change. This project leverages this opportunity, and the research team's previous work in the area, to understand how coral existing genetic variation interacts with acquired environmental modifications (i.e., microbiome and epigenome) during intra- and trans-generational responses to extreme climatic events. For this purpose, coral and Symbiodinium genotypes, bacterial diversity and epigenomic modifications will be directly examined, exploring their role in coral demographic and physiological recovery and the inheritance of epigenomic signatures linked to stress acclimatization. This work will be accomplished by a multi-institutional team, providing much needed answers to questions concerning the mechanisms by which foundational species acclimatize to rapidly changing environmental conditions. By better understanding the mechanisms contributing to stress responses, the researchers hope to learn how long lived sessile organisms may adapt or acclimatize to a extreme events. Established resources at Florida International University, the University of Puerto Rico, and Pennsylvania State University will be used to recruit and engage graduate and undergraduate students from under-represented groups in science in the research. The research team will work closely with Puerto Rican agencies and local resource managers to communicate management and conservation applications from the research.

The increasing frequency and intensity of altered storm regimes will contribute to significantly reducing coral population sizes in the next few decades. While it is known that environmentally acquired modifications can influence coral health and physiology, their precise role and interaction with coral existing genetic variation to promote phenotypic plasticity remain one of the central gaps in our understanding of metazoan ecology and evolution. This project will be the first investigation into the interaction between coral genetic variation and two different types of environmentally acquired modifications (epigenome and microbiome) during intra- and trans-generational responses to high-energy storms. The proposed research will determine a) if modifications in epigenetic signatures and bacterial diversity are dependent on specific associations between coral host and Symbiodinium genotypes, b) if those modifications promote differential physiological and demographic performance during post-hurricane recovery, and c) if epigenomic modifications acquired by progenitors are transmitted to their offspring. Two graduate students and 2 REU undergraduates will be engaged in this research. The research team will work closely with Puerto Rico agencies, convene monthly conference calls, and provide regular updates about this work to local resource managers. A formal evaluation protocol will be used to assess implementation and progress of the proposed educational and scientific activities (following NSF user-friendly handbook for project evaluation). Results and metadata will be disseminated through peer-reviewed publications, scientific meetings, reports and using online repositories. Raw data will be provided upon request.

Effective start/end date1/15/1812/31/18


  • National Science Foundation: $35,877.00


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