AUSTIN, Texas, June 25 (UPI) -- As ocean waters continue to warm, scientists have observed larger and more frequent coral bleaching events. Ecologists have worried global warming could precipitate coral extinctions -- die-offs that could threaten entire marine food chains.
But according to new research out the University of Texas, some coral species already possess the genetic variations necessary to prevent such dire consequences.
Some corals are able to adapt to warmer water, researchers say, and those beneficial genes are transportable.
"Our research found that corals do not have to wait for new mutations to appear. Averting coral extinction may start with something as simple as an exchange of coral immigrants to spread already existing genetic variants," Mikhail Matz, an associate professor of integrative biology at Texas, said in a press release. "Coral larvae can move across oceans naturally, but humans could also contribute, relocating adult corals to jump-start the process."
Researchers tested Great Barrier Reef coral species endemic to differing latitudes, transporting coral larvae to new locations and subjecting the young organisms to heat stress.
Researchers found that corals from warmer waters farther north were 10 times more likely to survive temperature spikes than coral species from farther south. Genomic tools helped scientists identify the genes that enabled the corals' heat tolerance.
"This discovery adds to our understanding of the potential for coral to cope with hotter oceans," said Line Bay, an evolutionary ecologist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science.
The new research was published in the journal Science.