Understanding the environment-to-epigenetic alterations driving ecosystem function and resilience under continuing climate change
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This project investigates the role of epigenetic processes in providing rapid intragenerational and transgenerational plasticity within an ecosystem severely threatened by climate change. I am assessing epigenetic patterns, and their connection to varying genotypes, demography, and physiological responses, in Diadema antillarum inhabiting coastal areas of Puerto Rico that naturally differ in their temperature regimes. This work is funded through an NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology, Broadening Participation of Groups Under-represented in Biology.

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The Problem

Coral reefs provide numerous ecosystem services. Within Caribbean coral reefs, the sea urchin Diadema antillarum plays a vital ecological role as an herbivore that feeds on macroalgae that can otherwise overgrow and outcompete the coral. In the early 1980s an extensive mass mortality event dramatically depleted populations of D. antillarum, leading to a shift from coral- to algae-dominated reefs. The recovery of these populations has remained slow. Continued climate change may disrupt recovery even futher with disasterous consequences for coral reefs.

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The Goal

Using Diadema antillarum, this project aims to investigate mechanisms underlying environment-to-epigenetic changes and their role in ecosystem function and resilience under continuing climate change. The project objectives include: 

  1. Assembling a draft genome for D. antillarum

  2. Assessing existing environmental and biological variability in coral reefs in Puerto Rico

  3. Determining how temperature influences epigenetic marks and physiology on locally adapted or phenotypically plastic species, and

  4. Investigating epigenetic inheritance and transgenerational plasticity

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Broadening Participation

Planned activities associated with this project include educational outreach events with students at the Marine Academy of Science and Technology at FIU's Biscayne Bay Campus. Public outreach will also be performed in Puerto Rico with Sociedad Ambiente Marino. This project also supports mentorship in research and professional development to undergraduate students from FIU and UPR. You can check out more information about the work done by REU student, Jesse Margolies here.

Latest News

Due to work and travel restrictions related with the COVID-19 pandemic, the fieldwork and data collection for this project was temporarily delayed. However, in August we had a successful first field trip to Puerto Rico! We found multiple locations at which Diadema were present, and deployed sensors to collect temperature data at these sites. I am in the process of planning the next trip during this Fall. 

Stay tuned for more updates.