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In an unprecedented move, the National Science Foundation is providing $300,000 to three universities including FIU to better understand the impact of global climate change on tropical ecosystems.

Three CREST centers — at FIU’s Institute of Environment, the University of Puerto Rico and at the University of Hawaii at Hilo — each will receive $100,000 for their participation in CRESTropical: A thematic network studying the environmental-epigenetic linkages shaping phenotypic responses in tropical ecosystems.

“This is an amazing opportunity to keep showing our leadership on environmental sciences from creek-to-reef, while making an impact for our students and community,” said Jose Eirin-Lopez, FIU’s lead researcher for the project.

Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico are unique places often hailed as a paradise. But apart from their vacation vibes, they also have a few other things in common: their distinctive tropical ecosystems, their vulnerability to climate change and urbanization, and their conservation and restoration potential. They each also have a university that hosts an NSF-funded CREST center.

FIU has its CREST Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment, the University of Puerto Rico’s has the CREST Center for Innovation, Research and Education in Environmental Nanotechnology and the University of Hawaii at Hilo has the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science program.

“Our newest NSF funding associated with our CREST center will allow us to look at coral restoration linking the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, with particular emphasis on the local challenges in the Caribbean,” said Todd Crowl, director of the Institute of Environment. “Very few studies are designed to encompass such a large spatial scale, making this a very exciting collaboration.”

Together, researchers from these institutions will lead climate change research and human resource development in the tropics and enhance the new, developing field of environmental epigenetics. As part of this effort, new molecular tools will be developed which, in combination with more traditional approaches, will allow scientists to address climate change and urbanization causes and consequences in tropical ecosystems.

Each CREST program brings significant expertise to the table, as well as a one-of-a-kind location to test and study the impact that global climate change has on tropical ecosystems at the molecular level.

Beyond coral reefs, CRESTropical will also study terrestrial, freshwater and other marine habitats to see how these areas are being affected by climate change and increased urbanization, including changes in temperature and heightened pollution. Researchers will study how honey bees, snails, corals, sea urchin and reef fish respond to commonly encountered environmental stressors. This information will allow scientists to better understand the conservation measures necessary to protect and restore threatened tropical environments and species.

The research undertaken by CRESTropical is sustained by the strong education and outreach components of the project. The partnership across institutions facilitates opportunities for students from different backgrounds to engage in exchanges with one another. Students will be given the opportunity to study critical environmental problems taking place in their own backyards, but also across oceans with the partner schools.

“This project really connects communities at risk due to climate change, while providing opportunities for underrepresented students,” Eirin-Lopez said.

The exchanges will help to foster innovation and idea-sharing. By connecting groups that are experiencing similar threats due to climate change, students and researchers can support each other in identifying best practices, sharing data and methodology, and promoting tangible actions that can make a difference locally, nationally and around the world.

Learn more about FIU’s CREST center  or dive into our Institute of Environment’s environmental epigenetics research.