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 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. 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. Unfortunately, similar mass mortalities of D. antillarum began being reported in February 2022 from the US Virgin Islands. Although the causative agent has yet to be identified, incidences of sick and dying D. antillarum have continued to spread throughout the Caribbean, reaching Puerto Rico by April. Affected urchins exhibit loss of movement, spines, and tissues followed by mortality. I am investigating the molecular, organismal, and ecological outcomes of this current die-off event. See the Diadema Response Network for more information about the mass mortality.

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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. 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 the prospective pathogen influences epigenetic marks and physiology of unaffected, sick, and recovering D. antillarum, and

  4. Assessing the epigenetic and genetic diversity of the individuals that remain after the die-off event

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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 and graduate students. 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, trips to Puerto Rico have since resumed, with active collaboration with researchers at Sociedad Ambiente Marino and the University of Puerto Rico Río Piedras.

Stay tuned for more updates.