a petri dish under a microscope with a needle held above it.

Using gene-editing to identify genes that influence coral adaptation to climate change

This project will broaden our knowledge about the genes that underpin key traits such as heat (and bleaching) tolerance and growth in response to increasing temperatures.

This will be achieved by understanding how heat and bleaching tolerance of corals and other key coral traits are determined by their DNA - a fundamental attribute of all living beings that determine their performance and contributions to subsequent generations.

Our research seeks to identify genes that underpin characteristics like heat and bleaching tolerance and growth using gene editing with the CRISPR/Cas9 system. By introducing precise DNA edits into corals’ DNA, we can turn off genes and thus test their function under current and simulated future conditions.

Understanding the genetic basis of coral traits will enable the development of adaptive markers to understand how corals will be impacted by future climate change. This information can also be used to support the enhancement of coral traits in natural populations.

CRISPR/Cas9 research to date

Over the past five years, we have developed technology to make precise changes in the coral genome using CRISPR/Cas9.

In 2018, we identified a key gene, HSF1, that controls coral tolerance to heat stress. This is the first gene to be shown to control coral survival to heat. 

In 2020, we identified a gene we believe is involved in coral's ability to biomineralise their skeletons. 

From 2021, we have built a database of key genes for CRISPR screens from several Acropora coral species, to increase the knowledge of the genetic basis of heat stress in corals and feed the possibilities of CRISPR screens.

By understanding genes that underlie key ecologically important traits, our work will provide key genetic information to underpin the development of genetic markers. Genetic markers are key to inform conventional and adaptive management strategies and underpin predictive models for reef futures as well as knowledge and tools for restoration and adaptation.

Microinjection of CRISPR-Cas9 reagents in fertilised coral (Acropora millepora) eggs

The science in 2022

During Great Barrier Reef coral spawning in November and December 2022 and the next Autumn spawning season (February-March 2023), we are conducting three main projects aimed at increasing our understanding of the genes that corals use to survive heat stress. We will examine both larval and juvenile stages of the coral animal. 

  • Using CRISPR/Cas9 screens to identify genes that control survival to acute heat stress
  • Using CRISPR/Cas9 screens to identify genes that control susceptibility to bleaching
  • Developing a high-throughput method for scaling up CRISPR screens

These three ambitious projects will help us gain a deeper understanding of coral biology and support the development of genetic markers that may be able to predict stress tolerance in the wild.

Researchers

Dr Line Bay, AIMS

Dr Phillip Cleves, Carnegie Institution for Science

Dr Severine Fourdrilis, AIMS

Collaborators

Véronique Berteaux-Lecellier and Gaël Lecellier (French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development - IRD)

Lucie Penin (University of Reunion Island)

This research is supported by

Carnegie Institution for Science

Australian Institute of Marine Science

The European Union’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions