Mechanisms of reef coral resistance to future climate change

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Science  23 May 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6186, pp. 895-898
DOI: 10.1126/science.1251336

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Reef corals are highly sensitive to heat, yet populations resistant to climate change have recently been identified. To determine the mechanisms of temperature tolerance, we reciprocally transplanted corals between reef sites experiencing distinct temperature regimes and tested subsequent physiological and gene expression profiles. Local acclimatization and fixed effects, such as adaptation, contributed about equally to heat tolerance and are reflected in patterns of gene expression. In less than 2 years, acclimatization achieves the same heat tolerance that we would expect from strong natural selection over many generations for these long-lived organisms. Our results show both short-term acclimatory and longer-term adaptive acquisition of climate resistance. Adding these adaptive abilities to ecosystem models is likely to slow predictions of demise for coral reef ecosystems.

Hot and bothered corals can cope

How well can corals adapt to temperature extremes? Better than anticipated, it turns out. Corals from reef pools with wide temperature fluctuations resist stress better than corals from less extreme pools. Nevertheless, corals transplanted into the hotter and more variable conditions soon acquired thermal tolerance. Palumbi et al. (see the Perspective by Eakin) found that the tougher specimens produced more of certain proteins, such as the tumor necrosis factor receptor superfamily, which protected them from the effects of heat. Ramping up heat shock and transport proteins yielded heat tolerance far more rapidly than mutation and adaptation. Hopefully, this ability will allow some mitigation of climate change on coral reefs.

Science, this issue p. 895; see also p. 798.

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