Population genetics of the coral Acropora millepora: Toward genomic prediction of bleaching

Coral reefs worldwide are suffering losses at an alarming rate as a result of anthropogenic climate change. Increased seawater temperatures, even only slightly above long-term maxima, can induce bleaching—the breakdown of the symbiotic relationship between coral hosts and their intracellular photosynthetic dinoflagellates from the family Symbiodiniaceae. Because these symbionts provide the majority of energy required by the coral host, prolonged periods of bleaching can eventually lead to the death of the colony. In the face of rapidly increasing temperatures, new conservation strategies are urgently needed to prevent future mass losses of coral cover, and these benefit from an understanding of the genetic basis of bleaching.

Bleaching responses vary within and among coral species; in the reef-building coral Acropora millepora, a commonly distributed species across the Indo-Pacific, these differences have been shown to be at least partly heritable. In this study, Zachary L. Fuller and colleagues demonstrate the feasibility of using a genomics-based approach to predict individual bleaching responses and suggest ways in which this can inform new strategies for coral conservation.

Understanding the genetics of heat and bleaching tolerance will be critical to predict coral adaptation and the future of coral reef ecosystems under climate change. This knowledge also supports both conventional management approaches and the development of new interventions. This research work provides insight into the genetic architecture of bleaching response and serves as a proof of principle for the use of genomic approaches in conservation efforts. They show that a model based on environmental factors, genomic data from the symbiont, and genome-wide association data in the coral host can help distinguish individuals most tolerant to bleaching from those that are most susceptible. These results thus build a foundation toward a genomic predictor of bleaching response in A. millepora and other coral species.

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