Six months after Irma and Maria hurricanes, two names now associated with destruction for Puerto Ricans, the struggle of the island and its habitants to restore normality continues.

At the same time that power and infrastructure is restored and repaired by humans, reefs around the island are struggling to survive after being dramatically impacted by the storms. This constitutes an incredible opportunity to study the mechanisms involved in coral recovery, especially the role of acquired modifications in the microbiome and the epigenome.

We hit hurricane ground zero last week to start our research, funded by the National Science Foundation. This work is being currently developed by a multi-institutional team of researchers, led by FIU’s Environmental Epigenetics Lab, in collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), and the Pennsylvania State University. Our project has critical outreach and educational components, including the participation of the Puerto Rican NGO Sociedad Ambiente Marino (SAM).

Our trip, as usually happens when working in the field, was far from smooth. Unfortunate weather for over five weeks forced us to postpone the trip several times, and many other logistic inconveniences appeared. Overall, we managed to overcome all problems and complete a very successful trip, constituting as the perfect kick-off for a very exciting project. The trip was all about hard work and dedication. The contribution of all participants, especially the teams from FIU, UPR and SAM that were physically in the field, turned a very ambitious plan into a success.

In the present trip, we rescued approximately 100 staghorn coral fragments from three different reefs in the Island of Culebra, stabilizing them at two different depths. The hurricane impact was evident based on the high fragmentation observed in most of the recovered corals. We assessed coral morphometric parameters to start the demographic description of their recovery, and measured photosynthetic efficiency of coral fragments as an indicator of their physiological state. Samples were also collected to assess coral and symbiont genotypes, bacterial diversity and epigenomic modifications.

We are already planning the next expedition for the end of March 2018, assessing the status of the coral fragments collected previously, as well as increasing the number of recovered fragments up to 200 before starting monthly surveys.

In a rapidly changing environment, acquired modifications in the epigenome and microbiome are one of the last resorts to avoid coral extinction.

Field Survey and Experiment Setup
NSF Coral Epigenetics 01
NSF Coral Epigenetics 02

Bottom Time with Javier Rodriguez-Casariego

Javier is a PhD student at FIU’s Environmental Epigenetics Lab under the supervision of Dr. Jose Eirin-Lopez. As a Research Assistant funded by this project, he is involved in all aspects of experimental setup and coral epigenetic, microbiome and physiological analyses.

How did you become interested in the biology of corals?

Marine biology was my fascination since I was a kid, and coming from Cuba I grew up interacting with coral reefs. I have previously worked with other reef animals such as turtles and lobsters but never had the chance to work with corals before. Most of my work used biochemical and molecular tools, but always related with ecological problems and questions. Currently, I’m interested in studying how epigenetic mechanisms modulate responses to environmental stress, mediating resilience. Since I wanted to develop my research in marine organisms, corals came up as extremely interesting models to address my questions. Coral’s specific characteristics (long-life, symbiosis, sessile condition, etc.) makes them very sensitive to environmental disturbances. At the same time, they are extremely plastic and resilient, which explain how they can survive in such heterogeneous habitat. All this conditions, together with the urgent need to restore coral populations, drove my attention to study coral biology.

What is the most important contribution of this project to the assessment and recovery of coral reefs?

This project will help responding many questions relevant for diverse areas ranging from molecular biology to management and restoration, and will actively rescue and replant corals fragmented by the hurricanes. However, in my opinion, the main contribution will be elucidating the trans-generational effects of environmental stressors and their role in acclimation at the population level. Understanding this processes will expand our paradigms of evolution and adaptation, and will provide an incredibly useful tool to actively restore reefs with resilient corals.

Once this project is complete, what do you think would be the next step in coral research?

As always happen in science many other questions will arise from our results, and addressing them will take us to even more. So, I can think of several avenues where coral research can go, however, these are times where coral biologists desperately need to take action before is too late. Although we always want to collect more evidence and corroborate our findings, application of these concepts for the development of strategies to restore and protect reefs is at the essence now. I think the next step will be towards the application of all our knowledge in restoration strategies, and recent actions taken by the scientific community involved in coral research support this idea. 

How will this project impact your future scientific development?

As a graduate student, this project will not only be part of my dissertation work, but will constitute the avenue to introduce myself to the community of scientists involved in coral research. The opportunity to work directly with highly renowned researchers involved in diverse fields, is opening so many chances for improvement and integration that will be critical for my development as a scientist.

It is really a privilege to be working on a project addressing fundamental questions for coral conservation, especially at this precise moment when many believe is our last chance to take action to save these fabulous ecosystems.