Coral across the globe are facing tremendous challenges due to climate change. Scientists in Saudi Arabia have begun looking at a process that changes the regulation of genes called DNA methylation to see if coral can adapt to changing waters.
Methlyation is the process of adding methyls, alkylls derived from methane, to DNA molecules. The process can change how DNA information is read without actually changing the strand of DNA itself. It's a well-known process, one 2010 study looking at methlyation and cancer treatment "one of the most intensely studied" forms of genetic modification in mammals.
Now, scientists at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) are looking at the process in coral and have been encouraged by the results.
Since the ocean absorbs of all carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, the more that humanity produces the more it absorbs. The process of adding unhealthy levels of carbon dioxide to the ocean is known as acidification and it has deadly results. The KAUST scientists put colonies of a smooth cauliflower coral, Stylophora pistillata, in tanks of water with various levels of acidification and measured the results over two years.
It turns out that the coral was beginning to use DNA methylation on its own.
"We noticed that corals grown under more acidic conditions had higher levels of DNA methylation. Genes with increased methylation were related to cell growth and stress response, but not to calcification as we initially proposed," says geneticist Yi Jin Liew in a .
Methylation, as it currently stands, is a coral stress test. It's proof that the animal has been through a trying period. But the scientists hope that they'll be able to induce the procedure within the species, giving it greater resiliency as waters heat up.
Coral is one of the most resilient species on Earth, having beaten back several natural threats in the Great Barrier Reef and other locales across the globe. But scientists who have studied coral history warn that the artificial threat of global warming could lead to mass bleaching events and death, which would be a severe blow to biodiversity on the planet.
Coral genetics is a field of increasing interest to scientists. They're also looking at modifying coral through CRISPR.