The susceptibility and resilience of corals to thermal stress: adaptation, acclimatization or both?

Authors


  • PERSPECTIVE

Virginia M. Weis, E-mail: weisv@science.oregonstate.edu

Abstract

Coral reefs are threatened with worldwide decline from multiple factors, chief among them climate change (Hughes et al. 2003; Hoegh-Guldberg et al. 2007). The foundation of coral reefs is an endosymbiosis between coral hosts and their resident photosynthetic dinoflagellates (genus Symbiodinium) and this partnership (or holobiont) is exquisitely sensitive to temperature stress. The primary response to hyperthermic stress is coral bleaching, which is the loss of symbionts from coral tissues—the collapse of the symbiosis (Weis 2008). Bleaching can result in increased coral mortality which can ultimately lead to severely compromised reef health (Hoegh-Guldberg et al. 2007). Despite this grim picture of coral bleaching and reef degradation, coral susceptibility to stress and bleaching is highly variable (Coles & Brown 2003). There is enormous interest in discovering the factors that determine susceptibility in order to help us predict if and how corals will survive a period of rapid global warming. In this issue, Barshis et al. (2010) examine the ecophysiological and genetic basis for differential responses to stress in Porites lobata in American Samoa. They combine a reciprocal transplant experimental design between two neighbouring, but very different reef environments with state-of-the-art physiological biomarkers and molecular genetic markers for both partners to tease apart the contribution of environmental and fixed influences on stress susceptibility. Their results suggest the presence of a fixed, rather than environmental effect on expression of ubiquitin conjugates, one key marker for physiological stress response. In addition, the authors show genetic differentiation in host populations between the two sites suggesting strong selection for physiological adaptation to differing environments across small geographic distances. These conclusions point the study of coral resilience and susceptibility in a new direction.

Ancillary