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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.

Environmental Epigenetics Lab Coral Research

“Coral stress hardening has the potential to enhance coral resilience and increase the success of coral restoration outcomes,” Hackerott said. “However, there are a lot of aspects about this process that we still need to understand before being able to effectively and efficiently implement these methods into restoration practices. I am excited for the opportunity to explore these questions in collaboration with the Coral Restoration Foundation on one of the Florida Keys’ ‘Iconic Reefs.’”

The Coral Restoration Foundation is providing support through the donation of 900 fragments of coral from Tavernier Nursery for lab and field work, as well as 6 days of boat trips to harvest, outplant and monitor the coral fragments.

“The information gleaned from this work will identify and explain some of the mechanisms underpinning thermal stress tolerance in corals and will fill knowledge gaps critical for determining the applicability of coral stress hardening interventions to coral restoration practices,” Amelia Moura, the Science Program Manager for the Coral Restoration Foundation, said in a letter to NOAA in support of the project.

Eirin-Lopez oversees the Environmental Epigenetics Lab, which conducts some of the most groundbreaking epigenetic research on corals.

In 2021, FIU was ranked No. 9 in the world for positive impact on life below water by The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings and as one of the top universities in the United States for climate action. College Magazine also ranked FIU as the No. 1 university where students can make a difference in the climate crisis. FIU has been designated as a university of distinction for environmental resilience by the State University System of Florida Board of Governors.