Updated: Feb 8
CORALS DONATE THEIR BODIES TO SCIENCE!
SNP SEQUENCING BASELINE DEVELOPMENT
At Coral Restoration Foundation we work with over 20 different species of hard corals, all ranging in shape and size! Staghorn (Acropora cervicornis) and elkhorn (Acropora palmata) corals were once the most prolific species on Florida’s Coral Reef and were the first 2 species CRF™ began outplanting back in 2007. But what of the other species that we work with in our nurseries? Aren’t those just as important? The answer is an overwhelming yes!
A massive natural boulder coral grows on Flroida's Coral Reef™ ©Coral Restoration Foundation™
We can think of boulder corals on our reefs much like the terrestrial redwood tree. Like redwoods, boulder corals have the capacity to grow to incredible sizes and are slow-growing, organisms. Boulder corals may only grow as much as 1-2 cm per year! Given enough time, these colonies can grow incredibly large and provide even more structure to our reefs.
Restoration is vital to their survival, both within the Keys and throughout the world. To date, CRF™ has been working with 72 putative genotypes of O. annularis and O. faveolata. “Putative” genotypes are estimated based on the location of the corals at the time of collection and are widely used and accepted in the scientific community. This is how we can calculate that our coral nurseries are home to over 1,000 putative genotypes across 20 species! With those putative genotypes, we have already done extensive work to propagate, outplant, and monitor the boulder corals in our care, all of which is published in our white paper available here .
CRF™ has been working with boulder corals for years improving and innovating our nursery and restoration techinques. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™
Now our Science Team is excited to share additional advancements in our boulder coral work. We are supporting the development of the Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) sequencing baselines for Orbicella annularis by providing samples of this species from our genetic bank to Pennsylvania State University.
Recently, CRF™ sent samples of entire elkhorn and staghorn populations for SNP genotyping and are patiently awaiting the results! Unlike for Orbicella, the SNP chip (the tool for genotyping) had already been established using samples from non-CRF™ populations so the next step was to sequence the DNA of all the genotypes in our nurseries. For boulder corals that first step of setting up the baseline SNP chip has not occurred yet and that’s what these freshly shipped samples will be supporting. The development of what is called a SNP chip will allow samples of multiple Orbicella species to be sequenced in the future!
Science Program Associate Hayley places tiny samples of Orbicella annularis from the CRF™ Genetic Bank into ethanol filled test tubes. ©Coral Restoration Foundation™
Despite our ability to estimate putative genotypes it is always exciting to have the sequenced genome of corals. Through sequencing we can learn a lot of information about our corals that will help to influence our restoration techniques in the future. It is also helpful when working with other Florida Keys restoration groups for potential “coral swaps”, sharing information through our Coral Sample Registry, and setting up scientific collaborations with researchers interested in learning more about coral genetics.
Sending our Orbicella annularis samples for SNP chip development has required days planning, coordinating, and of course sampling in the field from our science team! In late September, our Science Program Associate Hayley headed out to our Tavernier Nursery ready to collect fingernail sized samples of 10 Orbicella annularis coral samples housed in our Genetic Bank. She and some of our interns used clippers to fragment the corals, extracting small tissue samples that were placed in labelled test tubes filled with ethanol. The ethanol preserves the genetic material, or DNA, until the samples arrive at the lab and can be processed.
Hayley and the team reported a successful day on the water. They were able to gather the boulder coral samples from our Genetic Bank during one dive and preserved the tissue and DNA while sitting topside. This was one of the first field days led by Hayley who joined our team in mid-June!
By genetically sequencing corals we in the restoration community get a better understanding of the genotypic diversity in coral nursery populations, particularly those corals being used for restoration. Instead of using putative genotypes based on locations scientists have the ability to see the exact genome of each individual to differentiate them! Though putative genotyping estimates are widely accepted in the restoration community establishing the tools and resources to sequence coral genomes is an exciting step forward for collaborative research and innovation in the field.
Coral Chronicles Editor
Madalen Howard is CRF's Communications and Outreach Coordinator. Madalen comes to CRF™ via a winding road from the Tennessee hills, to the South Carolina low country, ending here in Florida’s Coral Reef. She earned her Bachelor's degree in Marine Biology and a Minor in Environmental Studies from the College of Charleston in 2016. Her experience ranges from field research to education, marketing and digital communications.
With CRF™ Madalen creates inclusive pathways to scientific discovery through content creation and by building and fostering relationships with press, digital media creators, and local community members. Throughout her life Madalen has had a skill connecting people with nature, and is excited to bring people into the world of coral restoration.