Te aworo Bonairu! (See you later, Bonaire! in Papiamento)

The EELab team has officially completed the final expedition to monitor for evidence of coral environmental memory a full year after corals were reciprocally transplanted between two Reef Renewal Bonaire nursery sites.

Samples collected during this trip will help describe how long the “memory” of previous environmental conditions may last in corals within restoration. Serena is excited to continue analyzing the samples collected both from the coral nursery trees and from the thermal stress experiment to see if corals of the same genotype (i.e., genetic clones) that had been grown on different nursery sites still display differences in growth and thermal tolerance. This long-term monitoring is an important first step in assessing the potential for coral stress hardening to increase the long-term resilience of corals within restoration. Coral stress hardening involves the exposure of corals to a moderate level of stress in an effort to increase their tolerance of later stress exposures. While this phenomenon has been demonstrated by many studies before, we still don’t know how long this benefit can last once corals are back in the ocean.  


This was the last (planned) trip of the project, and the team was able to reach some exciting achievements. After this final trip, it is finally safe to say that not a single overnight experiment throughout the year-long project was rained-out (or even rained on enough to send the over-night beach-campers running for shelter) which we count as a major accomplishment after performing 10 overnight thermal stress experiments outside on a tropical island!  


The team was also able to train Reef Renewal Bonaire staff, including four full-time members and three interns on how to perform the short-term thermal stress assay experiment. The set-up of coolers as “tanks”, basic aquarium supplies, and temperature control using the user-friendly Neptune Apex system was designed with the remote conditions of Bonaire in mind. The goal was for this system to be a useful tool for restoration practitioners to be able to measure the thermal stress tolerance of their corals without the need for an aquarium facility (which does not currently exist on Bonaire). It was very exciting to finally “pass the baton” by showing RRFB the details of the system that they could use in the future for additional thermal tolerance assessments.  


Lastly, this trip represents the culmination of a complex, multi-phase project that Serena developed in 2018, during the first year of her Ph.D. program, in collaboration with Francesca, the RRFB COO and with advice from EELab PI Jose Eirin-Lopez. This project was the bulk of Serena’s field and lab work for the first few years of her program and this last expedition was the last field trip required for her dissertation work. To celebrate, the team visited some of Bonaire’s most beautiful natural sites including the Washington Slagbaai National Park. The EELab team is currently working with RRFB on ways to keep this collaboration going for years to come to benefit both coral research and restoration.  


This work has been made possible by support from Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire, FIU CREST-CAChE, The Lerner-Gray Fund for Marine Research, and the Iberostar Wave of Change Rebuilding Coral Reefs Scholarship.   

Bottom Time with Dr. Jose Eirin-Lopez

Dr. Eirin-Lopez is an Associate Professor in the Institute of Environment at FIU. His research program is broadly focused on environmental epigenetics, and with particular emphasis on marine ecosystems. During his career, he has published more than 90 peer-reviewed papers and has mentored multiple Ph.D. students. He is the senior investigator in the present project.

How did you become interested in the biology of corals?

My first contact with corals as model systems dates back to the early 2000s when I studied histone families in several cnidarians as part of a larger effort to elucidate the mechanisms driving the evolution of multigene families. Later on, when I moved to FIU in 2013, I had the opportunity to get fully acquainted with the ecology of these organisms by progressive developing fieldwork working with diverse reef-building coral species, first in the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico, and later in Mo’orea and Bonaire. 

How will this project help support Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire’s mission and goals?

I believe that corals are extraordinary organisms to study how global climate change impacts our oceans. Corals are ecosystem-forming organisms whose well-being is intimately linked to the health of coastal areas and their inhabitants. This project will help us gain a better knowledge of the mechanisms used by corals to withstand changes in the environment, and this will inform conservation and restoration interventions. 

How was your involvement in this project different from your typical activities at RRFB?

Thanks to the collaborations this project has opened, I have become very interested in the epigenetic determinants of coral symbiont (algae) phenotypes and their role influencing coral resiliency. Similarly, and on a more general scale, we are extremely excited about the role of epigenetic mechanisms regulating mito-energetic communication and energy budgets in the cells. 

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

Thanks to this project I am building an extraordinary network of contacts that is opening many avenues to continue research and mentorship activities in the future. For instance, I am joining efforts with researchers at other institutions to integrate knowledge across disciplines, building new proposals aimed at model how epigenetic modifications regulate ecosystem function. In addition, this project is cementing the strong relationship between FIU and Reef Renewal Bonaire and their role serving underserved minorities. These are just a few of the many different opportunities this project is bringing to the table, in addition to the obvious continuation of the current work in the future. 

This project will help us gain a better knowledge of the mechanisms used by corals to withstand changes in the environment, and this will inform conservation and restoration interventions.