Could little tough love help corals adapt to climate change?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has awarded FIU’s Institute of Environment a $273,491 grant to research innovative ways to make corals more resilient to the changing climate.

FIU marine biologists Jose Eirin-Lopez and Serena Hackerott will lead the project, along with co-principal investigator Harmony Martell from the University of British Columbia. The grant, funded through NOAA’s Ruth Gates Coral Restoration Innovation Grant, supports projects researching techniques and methods that could improve the effectiveness of coral restoration and conservation.

The research team will apply stress hardening techniques to the corals in a lab and then return them to the ocean. This tough-love method is often used in agriculture to make seeds hardier. By pre-exposing the corals to stress, including higher temperatures, the researchers hope to make the corals more resilient.

“Our goal is to improve coral restoration strategies by investigating and applying stress hardening techniques, identifying genetic and epigenetic markers of hardening, and then selecting those corals displaying the strongest signals of hardening to repopulate reefs,” Eirin-Lopez said. “Our hypothesis is that hardened corals will be better at surviving in current and future climate conditions.”

Serena Hackerott — a FIU Ph.D. candidate in Dr. Eirin-Lopez’s Environmental Epigenetics Lab and research assistant with the CREST Center for Aquatic Chemistry and the Environment — will lead the field research at Carysfort Reef in the Florida Keys. Hackerott’s doctoral research is focused on environmental memory and stress hardening in corals.

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