NYUAD researchers find new method to allow corals to rapidly respond to climate change

Reef-building corals transmit epigenetic adaptations to their offspring that can combat the effects of global warming

New York University


IMAGE: Ras Ghanada reef in Abu Dhabi

Credit: NYU Abu Dhabi

Fast Facts:

  • Discovery by NYU Abu Dhabi and KAUST researchers points to new avenue for corals to rapidly respond to climate change
  • The research, published in Nature Climate Change, demonstrates that epigenetic modifications in reef-building corals can be transmitted from ‘parent’ corals to their offspring
  • The findings suggest that generating pre-adapted coral colonies and larvae via epigenetic conditioning would help seeding populations naturally repopulate dying reefs
  • Epigenetics means ‘above’ or ‘on top of’ genetics. It refers to external modifications to DNA that turn genes ‘on’ or ‘off.’ These modifications do not change the DNA sequence, but instead, they affect how cells ‘read’ genes.

Abu Dhabi, UAE (February 10, 2020) – For the first time, a team of marine biology and environmental genomics researchers at NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) and KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology) have demonstrated that epigenetic modifications in reef-building corals can be transmitted from parents to their offspring. This discovery, reported in a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change, not only enhances the biological understanding of corals, it also opens up new approaches to stem the loss of this foundation species of marine ecosystems. The findings suggest that generating pre-adapted coral colonies and larvae via epigenetic conditioning would enable the creation of seeding populations that can naturally repopulate dying reefs.

Climate change is causing significant declines in coral reefs worldwide. The long generation times of corals has inspired fears that corals may not be able to genetically adapt in time to overcome the rapid pace of climate change. However, in the study “Intergenerational epigenetic inheritance in reef-building corals,” the NYU Abu Dhabi team led by NYUAD Assistant Professor of Biology Youssef Idaghdour; NYUAD Associate Professor of Biology John Burt; former NYUAD postdoctoral associate Emily Howells and colleagues from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology found that a species of stony coral Platygyra daedalea, commonly referred to as ‘brain coral’, has the ability to pass to their offspring epigenetic marks that help them quickly adapt to adverse environmental changes.

Epigenetics allows the modification of the “context” of the genome without altering the actual genetic code. Instead, it alters how it is used – such as when, and to what degree, a gene will be turned on or off.

The researchers collected colony fragments from the stony coral from two different ocean environments (Abu Dhabi and Fujairah) and sampled adults, sperm, and larvae from reciprocal crosses. Epigenetic profiles of corals were determined by whole genome sequencing. They identified a strong environmental signature in the epigenome of the coral, as well as the epigenetic factors strongly associated with the extreme hot and saline environment and highlighted their potential effect on coral fitness.

“What we are finding is a surprising amount of potential for both male and female corals to transmit their epigenome to their offspring,” said Idaghdour. “This research shows the capacity of coral parents to positively impact the resilience of their offspring in environments that are changing too quickly. Our learnings in this exciting field hold great potential for the preservation of these unique ecosystems for future generations.”

“Climate change represents the most pressing threat to coral reefs globally, with most research estimating widespread loss of corals within the next century. Given the long generation times of corals, it has commonly been accepted that the rapid rate of climate change is outpacing the capacity for corals to genetically adapt to cope with increasing temperatures,” said Burt. “This study demonstrates that epigenetic changes that enhance thermal tolerance can be passed to offspring, dramatically enhancing corals’ capacity to rapidly respond to environmental change.”


About NYU Abu Dhabi

NYU Abu Dhabi is the first comprehensive liberal arts and science campus in the Middle East to be operated abroad by a major American research university. NYU Abu Dhabi has integrated a highly-selective liberal arts, engineering and science curriculum with a world center for advanced research and scholarship enabling its students to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world and advance cooperation and progress on humanity’s shared challenges. NYU Abu Dhabi’s high-achieving students have come from 115 nations and speak over 115 languages. Together, NYU’s campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai form the backbone of a unique global university, giving faculty and students opportunities to experience varied learning environments and immersion in other cultures at one or more of the numerous study-abroad sites NYU maintains on six continents.

From EurekAlert!

45 thoughts on “NYUAD researchers find new method to allow corals to rapidly respond to climate change

  1. Don’t dare let this info get to the James Cook University, or they might realize their demonizing of Dr Peter Ridd was an egregious and embarrassing mistake. And we would want to hurt feelings so tender and raw the uncollegiate words traumatize them.

  2. “About NYU Abu Dhabi

    NYU Abu Dhabi is the first comprehensive liberal arts and science campus in the Middle East to be operated abroad by a major American research university.”

    NYU is a “tax exempt” charity in the United States. It has a tax exemption because it is supposed to educate our children. Instead, your taxpayer dollars are being sent to the Middle East to provide educations for the children of oil sheiks. Doesn’t it make you proud to be an American?

    • The institution for which I used to teach has a considerable presence in a couple of foreign countries. The programs are actually quite profitable and need no government grants (and wouldn’t qualify for them anyway).

    • Is it working? Because if we can take the children of ignorant murderous throwbacks and turn them into modern intelligent people I’m fine with that. Costs a shitload less than blowing them up 7 times.

    • They aren’t. They are “rediscovering” the obvious. They are merely observing how corral breeds and grows, only to realize nature doesn’t need nor never needed any additional assistance. It will trundle merrily along with or without humans.

  3. Did it ever occur to these scientists, That Corals probably produce a wide range of Offspring suited to many different environments. If nothing changes only those most suited to the current environment will survive. If the circumstances of their environment is different, then only those Offspring suited to the new environment will Survive and prosper. . This is known as survival of the fittest a concept I thought researchers would be familiar with.

    • No, thats right Ronald, what would a “a team of marine biology and environmental genomics researchers” know about it? Perhaps you could email them.

      • Corals predate the hominid and humanoid species by at least 480 million years +/- 5 million years.

        From their genetic and evolutionary perspective they have been here and done this….

        • Climate “scientists” will insist that this ability evolved over the last few weeks in response to the climate apocalypse we are currently experiencing.

      • well frankly Lyodo
        they know F all if they didnt figure out that corals must be damned adaptable and as tough and ugly as many look to have survived this long.
        being paid to miraculously “find” the bleeding obvious- is annoying to sane people that are the mugs paying for it via taxes/student fees whatever..

      • I just love the way Loydo gets her panties in a wad whenever someone suggests that an alarmist “scientist” might not know everything.
        That’s usually right after she has declared that scientists that don’t agree with her are either idiots or being paid to disagree.

      • Lloydo,
        In answer to your question:
        Apparently they didn’t or at least chose to mislead the public by announcing their ignorance. One might blame the author of the press release for poorly depicting their profound grasp of the obvious.
        Your desire to attribute knowledge to those who should possess it is understandably naive but extremely foolish and potentially dangerous.

    • coral respond to climate change by producing billions of babies…..cold is limiting….but they keep trying to settle too far north or south too

  4. Surely the solution is to let Corals get on with li ing rather than spending time, effort and money messing them up.

  5. It’s in Nature Climate Change.
    If it was good science it would be in a better journal.
    It might even be in a better Nature journal.

  6. This is replacing the naturally occurring coral with something else. This will reduce biodiversity. This will change the makeup of the reef. Choose the wrong corals, and the reef will die.
    This international movement to “FIX” the reef is really really scary.

  7. There can be no doubt there is serious man-made destruction of some reefs around the world. Off East Africa and elsewhere dynamite fishing blows them to bits. Pollution from coastal resorts is another factor. On the natural forces front, the 1998 El Nino effect also appears to have caused reef bleaching which can prove terminal. But in Kenya they are replanting their reefs, growing on surviving living fragments from explosion fall-out. The mission statement contains no global warming warning. Instead, it’s about making good actual man-made damage: https://www.wur.nl/en/project/Reefolution-Kenya.htm

    • And yet, as the once totally obliterated Bikini Atoll reefs attest, corals can repopulate a seascape in ~ 70 years back to almost original size.
      Nature gets schist done – who’d have thought?

      • Yes, they can survive atomic bombs, but a fraction of a degree Celsius, well THAT is just too much to ask! They’re obviously doomed! /sarc

  8. So corals have been around for 240,000,000 years and they have survived a multitude of challenges including asteroids (without ointment), sea levels going up and down by hundreds of feet, temperatures going up and down by 10s of degrees and CO2 going up and down (or mostly down) by a couple of thousand ppm. And we think we can help them adapt?

    • It’s as if it just dawned on them that the Sun rises and sets each day! And how much did their “revelation” cost the taxpayers?!

      (Pardon the pun)

  9. Are they sure the corals had not thought of that themselves? I would have thought that after a billion years they could have discovered how best to survive on their own. But apparently they need help from second-rate experts.

    • They discovered a natural mechanism already in the corals. All organisms are likely to have some epigenetic adaptations they are capable of. This is not new (although we learn more every day). They then theorize that they can also do this in a lab (or aquarium) and seed coral beds to assist or speed up the process. No problem with that if climate change ever does proceed so rapidly that they need help.

      • I think Ed was making fun of the wording of the headline, which rather implies this is something that we discovered but that corals might be able to use to survive their iminent extinction. “Don’t just tell us, tell, the coral!” was my immediate response.

  10. This idea probably belongs on the same shelf as “Hey, let’s bring some rabbits to Australia and have fun hunting them.”

    • Not necessarily. If they take the same organism and grow in aquarium tanks, say at higher temperature, but mimic their natural environment in all other aspects, it is possible they could speed up the ability of coral to adapt by “seeding” the reef with “pre-adapted” corals and get areas that were bleached to recover faster. It is not a terrible idea on the face of it. I would be more worried they would accidentally introduce some microorganism dangerous for the other coral. But putting the same type of coral adapted to higher temperature there is not the same as introducing a non-native species like rabbits down under. Any microorganisms that came along for the ride would be similar to the rabbits.

  11. From the article: “The findings suggest that generating pre-adapted coral colonies and larvae via epigenetic conditioning would enable the creation of seeding populations that can naturally repopulate dying reefs.

    Coral has been repopulating reefs all by themselves for hundreds of millions of years, in all sorts of conditions, including conditions just like today, and those conditions forecast for the future by the CAGW doomsters. The corals don’t need human help.

    From the article: “Climate change is causing significant declines in coral reefs worldwide.”

    That’s BS (Bad Science).

    There’s no evidence humans are causing the climate to change or the ocean to change. Saying there *is* evidence, as these “scientists” do here, is the heighth of ignorance, or is deliberately deceptive.

    My guess is it is groupthink/ignorance, although it is hard for me to understand how supposedly intelligent people can’t see the holes that exist in the human-caused climate change speculation. To flatly state that it exists and is acting on the Earth environs now is frankly ridiculous considering the lack of evidence.

  12. Fast Facts paraphrased: If we alter their genes, they will pass it on. If things then get better, we succeeded. If they don’t, we need to tweak it. Also, the world will die if we don’t “do something.”

  13. “…most research estimating widespread loss of corals within the next century” For “research” read “computer games”

  14. So sad to see such interesting and important observations of natural adaptation be polluted by all of the imaginary end-of-times climate rhetoric. Like mixing fine wine with sewage. My apologies to my wine loving friends.

    • More like mixing fine wine with sewage, and then forcing others to drink it. AND charging them by the glass!

  15. Apart from the mandatory homage to climate change (really, if they wanted to get published in Nature, what else could they do?), this is another decent contribution to the burgeoning field of epigenetics.

    It wasn’t that long ago that “the science was settled” in evolutionary biology. There was DNA, there were genes, and there was natural selection, that was it. Now we have genetic drift as another important mechanism for evolution and speciation, we have bacteria and viruses that steal bits of DNA and leave them lying around, and we have epigenetics.

    Natural science is a wonderful thing. Stuff like this gives me hope for the future. Humans (some of us, at any rate) are continuing to use the brains that our ancestors evolved in response to the stress of living in an ice age.

    Settled science is an intellectual cul-de-sac. The more we think we know, the more we know that we don’t know as much as we think we know.

    It wasn’t that long ago that I wrote (here and in several other places because I thought it was a nice turn of phrase) that “epigenetics is just Lysenko with a haircut and a new suit”. I was wrong!

  16. Well, you could, however, say “The “climate crisis” is just Lysenko with a haircut and a new suit.”

  17. Abu Dhabi is a good place to study effects of warming temperature on coral. It’s on the Persian Gulf, whose water is warmer than most tropical oceans, since it receives very little rainfall and does not mix much with water in from the open ocean. If the coral can make it there, they can make it anywhere.

  18. Does anyone have a handle on the average rate of vertical growth of coral? – thinking of the coral atolls of course.

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