Ana Cedeno / Contributing Writer
While coral reefs are dying due to environmental factors, a study at FIU could lead to their survival.
FIU researchers are trying to save Florida’s coral reefs, with grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The study involves collaborators beyond FIU, including the University of Miami and The University of Puerto Rico.
“Communities who rely on traditional fishing in regions like Africa, East Asia or Australia, coral reefs are where they get the food that they eat or that they sell in order to essentially be able to survive,” said Jose Maira Erin-Lopez, principal investigator at FIU’s Environmental Epigenetic Lab.
“So if coral reefs disappear essentially all those fish are going next so you are going to basically lose that source of livelihood,” said Erin-Lopez.
Jose Maira Erin-Lopez. Photo courtesy of FIU College of Arts, Sciences and Education Directory.
The study will be funded by a grant from NOAA, a national scientific and regulatory agency that forecasts weather, monitors oceanic and atmospheric conditions, charts the seas, conducts deep sea exploration, and manages fishing and protection of marine mammals and endangered species.
The grant was set up in honor of late marine biologist Ruth Gates, the director of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, who passed away two years ago.
Erin-Lopez said corals face multiple man-made threats such as waste runoff caused by coastal city overurbanization, and temperature fluctuations caused by climate change.
“Essentially the shock in those temperature changes are so high…that those algae…leave the coral,” said the FIU associate professor of biological sciences . “It’s really not good and at the end, the coral turns white and dies.”
To combat this, Erin-Lopez, Serena Hackerott PhD candidate, and a team of graduate and undergraduate students are conducting an epigenetic study. They look for certain genetic markers after putting corals under conditions that closely resemble man made threats.
Through this study, they hope to find ways they can repopulate the reefs with coral that can better withstand the environmental issues they’ll be exposed to.
Erin-Lopez said this study was the only one to use epigenetics for this purpose.
FIU Researchers collecting data from wild coral samples. Photo courtesy from enviromentalepigenetics.com
“Epigenetics is more like a combination between genetics and environment, more precisely how the environment affects our DNA,” he said.
Erin-Lopez said they came to this idea both due to the current situation of coral bleaching as well as the proximity of coral reefs to South Florida. It was also due to the current strategy for coral rehabilitation not yielding the results they wanted.
“All the strategies that have been traditionally used have been this process to get coral out of the ocean and bring them to the laboratory and keep them until they get better” he said. “Once they get better they are moved back into the ocean…but then they are going to be faced again by those conditions so they’re going to start dying all over again”
This new strategy, he explained, would instead have them select specific columns of corals and study them to see if they can develop to withstand those man made threats. The coral would then be released into the ocean to repopulate specific areas.
Erin-Lopez said coral reefs bring new life to barren ecosystems due to thriving in water with low nutrient levels and attracting other living organisms as they do. He pointed out that as corals die off, so would the ecosystems reverting back to the barren places they once were.
Coral reefs also play a role in protecting shore cities. He explained as corals grow sometimes above water, they fulfill the role of providing protection to coastal cities and sheltering them from storms, hurricanes and flooding.
South Florida coral reef. Photo courtesy of enviromentalepigenetics.com
Erin-Lopez added he is optimistic about the results of the study.
“I’m optimistic because in order to reach this stage we needed to generate preliminary data to accompany this project,” said Erin-Lopez. “What this means is that the proof of concept for these experiments is there. Now we need to develop this experiment at a larger scale so therefore I’m just optimistic about it.”
More information on the study can be found at Environmental Epigenetics Lab · EELab · Dr. Jose M. Eirin-Lopez