Reef recovery, adaptation and restoration

Enhancing the evolutionary potential and climate resilience of coral reefs for conservation and management.

AIMS is studying the evolutionary potential and adaptive mechanisms of key coral reef organisms to develop tools and approaches for enhancing coral reef resilience on the Great Barrier Reef.

Australia’s coral reefs are under pressure from global climate change and local human activities. Changes to the quality, temperature and acidity of seawater are causing coral bleaching and disease, and impair the growth, reproduction and survival of many reef species. With environmental change predicted to continue, coral reef organisms must become more able to cope with stressful conditions to survive into the future.

The challenge for science and management is to understand the ability of reef populations to adapt to environmental changes, and the consequences of coral loss for the environmental values, goods and services provided by the Great Barrier Reef. This involves understanding if and how coral reef organisms can become more tolerant to environmental stress, and the magnitude and rate of such adaptive responses in relation to the pace of environmental change.

We’re studying how coral reef organisms can become more tolerant both within their lifetimes and across generations. A current focus is on cross-generational mechanisms of adaptation that involve sequence or chemical changes in the DNA of individuals within populations. We also place emphasis on understanding the role of microbes on the stress tolerance of coral reef organisms within and across generations.

With a clear understanding of the adaptive mechanisms available to coral reef organisms, we will build models to predict their future under a range of possible environmental scenarios and evaluate the cost and benefits of management options. Physiological and molecular markers of health and adaptability will be developed to identify individuals, populations or species of high conservation value. The potential to experimentally assist climate change adaptation is explored in the laboratory (such as Assisted Evolution and Evolution21) and its role in reef restoration will subsequently be tested in the field.