Some coral-algae combos can handle climate change

"Our study provides a glimmer of hope that corals can respond to and survive climate change, as long as it's not too fast," says Iliana Baums. (Credit: iStockphoto)

For some time, scientists have known that certain combinations of coral and algal species were more tolerant to temperature extremes than others, and therefore more likely to survive in the changing conditions predicted for the future.

“But we had no idea if the same dynamic could play out among different combinations of individuals within species,” says John Parkinson, lead author of a new study published in Scientific Reports that suggests corals may have a greater capacity to adapt to changing ocean conditions than experts thought.

“Our study provides a glimmer of hope that corals can respond to and survive climate change, as long as it’s not too fast,” says Iliana Baums, associate professor of biology at Penn State. “The variation in response to extreme temperature that we observed is the raw material for evolutionary change and indicates that these corals may be more adaptable than previously thought.”

Elkhorn coral in Bonaire
Elkhorn coral in Bonaire. (Credit: Jessica Levy/Coral Restoration Foundation)

Reef-building corals depend on single-celled algae called Symbiodinium to provide energy through photosynthesis, while the algae benefit from the corals’ nutrients.

“This delicate symbiosis can break down under extreme ocean temperatures associated with climate change,” says Parkinson, a former graduate student at Penn State. “Just this summer—the hottest on record—major thermal anomalies in Florida, Hawaii, and Panama have seriously damaged local reefs, which provide essential ecological and economic resources.”

Coral reef in Mexico

Using high-resolution DNA markers that can distinguish individual corals and strains of algae from one another, the researchers mapped out host-symbiont associations on a reef in Puerto Morelos, Mexico.

They identified six genetically distinct colonies of the Elkhorn coral Acropora palmata that all shared the same strain of algae. Then they exposed fragments of the colonies to extreme temperatures and monitored the response of the algae.

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In all hosts, the algae suffered due to the stress, but the effect was half as intense in some corals compared to others.

“The beauty of the research is that we were able to disentangle the contribution of the host coral and its symbiotic partner algae in their collective response to environmental pressure,” says Baums.

‘Who you are paired with really matters’

The researchers also monitored changes in gene expression levels—an indication of how much a given gene is being used—in the corals. In cells of the corals that were protective of their partner algae, the expression level of 184 genes changed after being exposed to the temperature shock.

In corals with algae more heavily impacted by the environmental change, the expression level changed for only 14 genes.

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“Think of it like a couple’s dancing competition,” says Parkinson. “Who you are paired with really matters for your overall score.”

Researchers are encouraged that this is true not only for different mixes of coral and algae species, but also for different combinations of individuals within a species. This discovery suggests that there is an extra layer of complexity to coral-algae symbioses that may prove critical in how they respond to climate change in the long-term.

The National Science Foundation (US), the Institute of Ocean and Limnology Sciences (Mexico), and the National Council of Science and Technology (Mexico) supported the study.

Source: Penn State