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In today’s climate change scenario, temperature, ocean acidification, and contaminants are critical stressors driving the global decline of coral reefs. Although gardening and outplanting restoration strategies have been implemented, it appears corals are still dying under the same conditions that produced reef declines in the first place. As new research and restoration efforts are being studied, one very promising avenue to assist evolution in corals is epigenetics. 

The study of epigenetics is the phenomena and mechanisms that cause changes to gene expression independently of changes to the DNA sequence.  It is believed that the role of epigenetic mechanisms could accelerate the phenotypic change beyond the limits of genetic adaptation, although there’s still much to be discovered on this topic. NSF CREST Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment graduate fellow, Javier Rodriguez-Casariego, is uncovering new information about the topic by analyzing the role of epigenetic mechanisms in coral responses to environmental conditions. With his published research confirming histones involvement on coral responses to nutrient exposure and thermal stress, Rodriguez-Casariego is now aiming to detangle the factors influencing changes in DNA methylation under natural conditions and to generate a baseline for future environmental epigenetics studies.

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This research will be the first to evaluate the role of epigenetic mechanisms in improving coral resilience to challenging environmental conditions by combining molecular tools with physiological and demographic analyses. The results can lead to new reef management and restoration strategies, but most importantly, can help maintain biodiversity and ecosystem functions during a period of transition and climatic change.  

The NSF CREST Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment is housed within the Institute of Environment, a Preeminent Program at Florida International University.

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