In a study published today in Frontiers in Marine Science, a diverse team of Steinhart Aquarium biologists and researchers from the California Academy of Sciences’ Coral Spawning Lab produce the first-ever pedigree, or ‘family tree’, for corals bred in an aquarium and provide a list of best practices to maintain genetic diversity in aquarium-bred corals.
“Genetic diversity is what enables species to adapt to the myriad threats resulting from climate change,” said Academy Curator Rebecca Albright, PhD, who founded the Coral Spawning Lab, one of only a handful of facilities on Earth capable of successfully breeding corals. Albright’s work is an integral part of the Academy’s Hope for Reefs initiative, which is aimed at halting the decline of coral reefs in this generation. “For facilities like ours at the Coral Spawning Lab, ensuring each generation of corals is diverse allows us to conduct more robust experiments, which is a critical element of better understanding how corals can thrive on our changing planet. For organizations that do outplantings, increased genetic diversity translates to a greater chance of survival in the wild.”
For the study, the researchers conducted genetic analyses on the parents and offspring from two generations of Acropora hyacinthus corals spawned in the Coral Spawning Lab in 2019 and 2020. Based on the similarities between the DNA of the corals, the researchers were able to determine the relationships between individuals, such as parenthood or siblinghood. In particular, the researchers found 887 points in the 450-million-letter long code that appear to be different in aquarium-bred corals when compared to those born in the wild.
“Many of the differences we found were in gene pathways related to symbiosis with photosynthetic algae, which is how many corals get most of their energy,” López-Nandam says. “We hope to conduct future research in the Coral Spawning Lab to determine what exactly from an aquarium setting is driving these differences and how those genetic variations impact the overall fitness or health of aquarium-bred corals.”
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Image: Gametes being collected during a coral spawning event at the Academy. Gayle Laird © 2021 California Academy of Sciences