Acclimatization of Coral Populations to Local and Global Stressors: Can Corals Adapt to Future Threats?

EPA Grant Number: F13E20848
Title: Acclimatization of Coral Populations to Local and Global Stressors: Can Corals Adapt to Future Threats?
Investigators: Ritson-Williams, Raphael David
Institution: University of Hawaii at Manoa
EPA Project Officer: Lee, Sonja
Project Period: September 1, 2014 through September 1, 2015
Project Amount: $84,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2013) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Zoology


Locally, near-shore reef ecosystems are stressed and threatened by a suite of changes associated with human development, including large-scale agriculture, deforestation and stream channelization. At the global scale, seawater temperature and acidity are changing rapidly throughout the world’s oceans. An outstanding question in environmental biology is whether habitat-building marine organisms can physiologically respond to this suite of stressors, and whether different populations can tolerate local degradation of water 


This experiment is designed to better understand how the physiological stress response of corals varies among individuals and populations. Using modern genetic tools, including next-generation sequencing, the gene expression (RNA-seq) of individual corals from multiple populations will be quantified. The gene expression of individual corals will be tested in response to multiple stressors: sedimentation, elevated seawater temperatures and those two stressors in combination. This series of experiments will reveal how corals respond to multiple stressors (individually and together) and also how this response might vary among different populations, revealing genetic architecture that might allow some coral genotypes to persist on future reefs.

Expected Results:

This research is designed to use modern genetic techniques to answer three fundamental questions: (1) Can corals survive individual stressors by regulating their physiology? (2) Do corals have a different response
to stress when challenged by multiple stressors at the same time? (3) Do different populations of corals have different mechanisms of response to stressors (a signal of adaptation)? The results of this research will inform managers about which stressors most threaten the persistence of corals, giving them a hierarchy of stressors that must be mitigated to ensure coral survival. In addition, this research will provide important data on whether corals can adapt locally, which is potentially an important mechanism for corals to persist in degraded habitats.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection

Society relies on coral reefs for many ecosystem services, including a coastal buffer from storm surge, habitat for fish that humans eat and a source of sustainable revenue from tourism. As increased human development threatens near-shore marine communities, it is critical to mitigate the activities that most threaten the persistence of coral reefs. This research will provide crucial data on which stressors most threaten corals, for improved management of these diverse and important habitats.

Supplemental Keywords:

adaptation, coral reef, climate change

Progress and Final Reports:

  • Final