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Why Noah's Ark Will not Work



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Why Noah's Ark Will not Work

Melissa Pespeni, a biologist at the University of Vermont, examines two purple sea urchins. Credit: Joshua Brown / UVM

The strategy of Noah's Ark will fail. In the most acute sense, this is the conclusion of an unprecedented study that illuminates which marine species may have the ability to survive in a world where temperatures are rising and the oceans are becoming acidic.


Remainders of two by two, or even moderate in size, may have little chance of persisting on a planet that changes the climate. Instead, for many species, "we will need large populations," says Melissa Pespeni, a University of Vermont biologist who led the new research examining how hundreds of thousands of sea urchin larvae have responded to experiments in which their water of the sea was moderate or extremely acidic.

The study was published on June 11, 2019, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Rare relief

Pespeni and his team were surprised to discover that a rare variation in the DNA of a small minority of hedgehogs was highly useful for survival. These rare gene variants are "a bit like having a winter coat among fifty lightweight jackets when the weather hits twenty down in Vermont," says Pespeni. "It's that coat that allows you to survive." When water conditions became extremely acidic, these rare variants increased in frequency in the larvae. These are the genes that allow the next generation of hedgehogs to alter the function of various proteins – such as those used to make their shells hard but easily dissolved, and to control the acidity in their cells.

But keeping these rare variants in the population – in addition to other necessary genetic variations that are more common and allowing the response to a range of acid levels in the water – requires many individuals.

"The larger the population, the more variation you'll have," says Reid Brennan, a postdoctoral researcher at Pespeni's UVM lab and lead author of the new study. "If we reduce population size, then we will have less fodder for evolution – and less chance of having rare genetic variation that can be beneficial."

A purple sea urchin, in a University of Vermont laboratory, is part of a new study that shows that, for ocean species to survive climate change, large populations will be needed. Credit: Joshua Brown / UVM

In other words, some organisms may persist in a climate-modified world because they are able to change their physiology – think of sweating more; some may migrate, perhaps further north or up. But for many others, their only hope is to evolve – rescued by the potential for change they are expecting in rare stretches of DNA.

Quick adaptation

The purple sea urchins that the UVM team studied in their Vermont lab are part of the natural populations that stretch from Baja, California, to Alaska. Found in rocky reefs and seaweed forests, these thorny creatures are a favorite snack of sea otters – and a key species in shaping life in the intertidal and subtidal zones. Because of their large numbers, geographic reach and the changing conditions in which they live, hedgehogs have high "permanent genetic variation," the scientists note. That makes purple urchins probably survive in the difficult future of an acidified ocean – and good candidates to understand how sea creatures can adapt to rapidly changing conditions.

It is well understood that the rise in global average temperature is a key factor in the imminent extinction faced by a million or more species – as a recent UN biodiversity report notes. But it's not just the rising averages that matter. It can be the hottest – or more acidic – moments that test the limits of an organism and control its survival. And, as the UVM team writes, "the genetic mechanisms that allow rapid adaptation to extreme conditions are rarely exploited."

Current currency at sea

The new study used an innovative "single generation selection" experiment that began with twenty-five adult sea urchins caught. Each female produced about 200,000 eggs, from which scientists were able to extract DNA from pools of about 20,000 surviving larvae living in different water conditions. This very large number of scientists gave scientists a clear view that purple hedgehogs have a genetic inheritance that allows them to adapt to extremely acidic ocean water. "This species of sea urchin will look good in the short term. They can respond to these low pH conditions and have the genetic variation needed to evolve," says Reid Brennan of UVM. "As long as we do our part to protect their habitats and keep their populations large."

But overcoming the fierce challenge of rapid climate change can be costly. "We expect evolution to happen – and it is surprising and exciting that these rare variants play such a powerful role," says Melissa Pespeni, an assistant professor in the biology department at UVM and a specialist in ocean ecosystems. "This discovery has important implications for the long-term persistence of species. These rare variants are a kind of coin hedgehogs have to spend," she says. "But they can only spend once."


Sea urchins deal with rising levels of CO2


More information:
Rare genetic variation and balanced polymorphisms are important for survival under conditions of global change, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, rspb.royalsocietypublishing.or … .1098 / rspb.2019.0943

Provided by
University of Vermont

Quote:
Why Noah's Ark Will not Work (2019, June 11)
recovered on June 11, 2019
from https://phys.org/news/2019-06-noah-ark-wont.html

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