Research Highlights

Corals and climate change

Published online 28 July 2010

Mohammed Yahia

Stressors such as overfishing, pollution and rising sea surface temperatures are causing a decline in coral reefs worldwide. A group of international researchers, including Christian Voolstra from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), studied the ability of Montastraea faveolata, a common Caribbean coral, to adapt to climate change. The samples were collected from sites off the coasts of Florida, United States and Mexico.

After 24 hours at 1 to 2°C above mean summer temperatures, coral larvae began to express different genes in response to the extra heat. The researchers found that coral from either location varied in several important cellular processes such as apoptosis, cell structure and metabolism. However, these cultures also produced many misshapen embryos, with up to 50% of embryos malformed after 46 hours in the sample collected from Florida.

They suggest these developmental genes may play an important role in the thermal stress response of corals. Though the changes observed were recorded in early life stages, they may reflect the potential adaptation of adult coral populations to temperature stress. Further research built on this work may help researchers develop conservation and restoration plans for important and fragile coral ecosystems.


  1. Polato, NR. et al. Location-Specific Responses to Thermal Stress in Larvae of the Reef-Building Coral Montastraea faveolata. PLoS ONE. (2010). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0011221