Some corals are tougher than others when it comes to standing up to the warming ocean temperatures brought on by climate change. Stanford researchers have found a genomic basis for this coral resilience, helping make it possible to save the toughest breeds as temperatures continue to rise.
In a future shaped by climate change, only the strong – or heat-resistant – will survive. A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences opens a window into a genetic process that allows some corals to withstand unusually high temperatures and may hold a key to species survival for organisms around the world.
"If we can find populations most likely to resist climate change and map them, then we can protect them," said study co-author Stephen Palumbi, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and director of the Hopkins Marine Station. "It's of paramount importance because climate change is coming."
Coral reefs are crucial sources of fisheries, aquaculture and storm protection for about a billion people worldwide. These highly productive ecosystems are constructed by reef-building corals, but overfishing and pollution plus rising temperatures and acidity have destroyed half of the world's reef-building corals during the past 20 years. The onslaught of climate change makes it imperative to understand how corals respond to extreme temperatures and other environmental stresses.
Although researchers have observed that certain corals withstand stresses better than others, the molecular mechanisms behind this enhanced resilience remain unclear.
For their study, Palumbi, Stanford postdoctoral scholar Daniel Barshis and other researchers looked at shallow-reef corals off Ofu Island in American Samoa to determine how they survive waters that often get hotter than 90 degrees Fahrenheit during summer-time low tides.