For this project, the investigator has developed an integrative study including ecological, morphological, biochemical and genetic observations to understand individual responses of corals to temperature stress.

Increased coral mortality and subsequent modifications of coral reef ecosystems are responses to the changing environmental conditions that include direct and indirect effects of increased atmospheric CO2, increases in water temperatures, disease outbreaks, bleaching, and opportunistic pathogens. In the Caribbean, combinations of these natural effects have affected several coral species, among them the Montastraea annularis species complex. Considered one of the most important genera of corals in the Caribbean, these species have been affected by diseases and bleaching episodes. Infections and environmental effectors have significantly reduced abundances of M. annularis. Given that these species show local-specific responses to thermal stress and differential survival rates, it is likely that individual genetic composition may offer different levels of resistance/susceptibility to environmental stressors and infectious diseases. Therefore, a combination of observations that includes these different variables is needed to resolve key questions in the response of corals to environmental changes.

The broader impacts of the research include mentoring for graduate and undergraduate students in two minority serving programs at the University of Texas Arlington. Mentoring activities involve participation of students in all aspects of the scientific method, including manuscript preparation. Furthermore, the investigator will join outreach efforts of the sponsoring scientist who is engaged in local and statewide activities. The investigator will also work with local junior high schools as well as participate in the Hispanic Engineering Science and Technology conference, where students are taught about coral reefs and exposed to interactive workshops on the role corals play in healthy reef ecosystems.

This project is supported under the NSF Ocean Sciences Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (OCE PRF) program, with goals to support novel research by early career scientists and increase the diversity of the U.S. ocean sciences workforce and research community. With OCE-PRF support, this project will enable a promising early career researcher to establish themselves in an independent research career related to ocean sciences and broaden participation of under-represented groups in the ocean sciences.

Project Report

Changes in environmental conditions are putting pressure on natural systems. Marine organisms are especially affected by these "new" challenging conditions. While some species can survive and thrive, others will disappear. Changes in species and species composition could be troublesome, especially if it involves species important for building and sustaining ecosystems, like corals. Unfortunately over the last 4-5 decades scientists have seen a dramatic reduction in the amount of corals living in coral reefs and the subsequent deterioration of the health of these important ecosystems. Two big players in this decline are diseases and coral bleaching (the lost of the symbiosis in corals, usually, associated with thermal stress and increased temperature). The objective of this project was to determine the responses of corals to diseases and bleaching. While the focus was on three of the most important reef-building corals in the Caribbean (Orbicella faveolata, O. franksi and O. annularis), the project was expanded to include other species (Porites, Montastraea, Diploria, etc.) with different susceptibility levels to both disease and bleaching. This expansion offered the opportunity to provide a wider range of data that is beginning to explain how corals are responding to climate change. This information is relevant, as it will help improve coral reefs conservation initiatives and programs. The intellectual merits of the project include unique data sets from basal levels of immunity in corals to responses to infection and coral bleaching. The data from this project suggest that coral reefs may thrive through climate change, but the composition of these ecosystems may change. It appears that corals that belong to groups with longer evolutionary history are better prepared to fight infection than species from more modern groups. Additionally, individuals respond different to thermal stress, and some might be able to overcome some of the upcoming challenging conditions. In the future, the seascape of the reefs will likely be dominated by species from older lineages while current, with more modern species being less common. The ecological role of future coral reefs depends on their composition. Predicting that role is dependent on may factors, but hopefully, the information from this project will provide a base to start a discussion and the formulation of strategies to protect corals and coral reefs. An additional and more practical outcome is the large amount of data generated that will be available for future studies and researchers. There will be several next generation sequencing resources available from this project, including transcriptomes from various individuals of at least four species of corals. Some of these resources will provide insights as to how gene expression varies among corals when exposed to infection and or environmental stress. The findings and data from this project are also providing information and links to how the coral immune system works. Elucidating the coral immune responses can help understand the evolution of the innate immune system. A finding that can be translated to other invertebrates and vertebrates, including humans, since most of the immune-related proteins and mechanisms have similarities in function and structure across these groups. Broadening participation has been an important aspect of the project. The project has been part of public activities, such as Earth Day Texas and presentations in K-12 schools in Arlington, TX. These presentations exposed children and their parents to marine biology in general and specifically in coral reefs research. These activities were very successful reaching more than 1000 people. Another broaden participation impact has been the creation of a website for Coral Is/Es and an interest group to promote the study and education of evolution in Latin America (EvoLat). Coral Is/Es is already a success among the scientific community and has reached several countries across the planet. Future versions of this initiative will provide more educational resources to the public in general in English, Spanish, and probably other languages. Currently, and using, social media, Coral Is/Es is spreading the word on activities, education, legislation, science and conservation initiatives involving coral reefs. EvoLat is now a starting reference point for researchers interested in the Study of Evolution in Latin America, and it will likely growth as more scientists participate in the groups activities. The project involved training of biology undergraduate students (Lindsey Dornberger, Alexandra Cowthorne, Lea Jenkins form UTA and Melissa Martinez from Rice) and graduate students (Whitney Mann, Lauran Fuess, Contessa Ricci and Joshua M. Beach-Letendre at UTA). The PI interacted with the student through the development of their projects and provided constant training and support of these research activities. The project’s focus on outreach has been invaluable for the PI in his a new job as Research Educator for a new, and pioneering, program to involve freshmen in research since day one. This opportunity is changing the perception freshmen had on research and making a difference in their college education.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE)
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Elizabeth Rom
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Pinzon Jorge H
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