Scientists are becoming more and more concerned about world-wide coral bleaching, and there seems to be an imminent threat of total marine ecosystem desolation. We have mentioned in previous blogs the travesty that coral reefs are currently facing on a global scale. Over fishing, invasive species, ocean acidification, climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction, just to name a few. Thankfully a recent study from the University of Rhode Island’s (URI) College of the Environment and Life Sciences is taking a deeper look into marine organisms’ reactions to some of these common threats.
Hollie Putnam earned her PhD from the University of Hawaii, and is currently focusing on reef-building coral and mollusks that are threatened by increasing sea temperatures, and other factors, to see how they acclimate.
Dr. Putnam states, "I'm interested in how the environment is changing, how animals respond to those changes, and the potential for acclimatization to those conditions, particularly across generations and in different life stages.” She is currently an assistant professor in the URI Department of Biological Sciences, who only joined the faculty last month. "I'm asking questions like, do offspring perform better because of their parents' history in certain conditions, and if so, what are the mechanisms driving that."
In one study, Putnam has exposed adult coral polyps to stressful conditions (higher temperatures or acidifications) and then exposed their offspring to similar conditions and see how they fair in comparison. The results were surprising! "Interestingly, we found that there is potential for beneficial acclimatization because of parental history," she said. "There is a more positive metabolic response and ecological response, greater survivor ship and growth if their parents have been preconditioned to future scenarios."
She is conducting similar experiments with mollusks and testing their “memory” and genetic disposition to cope with catastrophic surroundings. Putnam is also conducting epigenetic studies to determine where in the genome this acclimatization effect takes place to better understand the driving mechanism behind the adaptations. She is planning future studies in the Caribbean.
While it seems like the coral are doing their best to fight back under the circumstances, there are a number of ways that local municipals and organizations are helping to manage reef restoration.
Dave Vaughan and his team are responsible for overseeing the Coral Restoration program in Summerland Key, Florida. Vaughan originally started growing coral in captivity as an ecofriendly alternative to wild harvesting for aquariums. One day, the grandson of Jacques Cousteau came to visit Vaughan’s operation and said, “You can do this for the reef.” This sparked the idea of restoring reefs through transplanting micro-fragments of coral along old reefs to encourage new growth. Today, Vaughan’s team spread genetically identical coral clones along the Florida Keys and the reefs are responding so well that they are exceeding the expectations of Vaughan. “People were looking for some glimmer of light and restoration is turning out be that in a big way.”
Science is helping to restore and rejuvenate some of these structures to a piece of their former glory. Coral reefs are such a beautiful and vital part of the marine world. We need to do whatever we can to protect them.
Written By: Emily Hauck