Avenues of reef-building coral acclimatization in response to rapid environmental change

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The swiftly changing climate presents a challenge to organismal fitness by creating a mismatch between the current environment and phenotypes adapted to historic conditions. Acclimatory mechanisms may be especially crucial for sessile benthicmarine taxa, such as reefbuilding corals, where climate change factors including ocean acidification and increasing temperature elicit strong negative physiological responses such as bleaching, disease and mortality. Here, within the context of multiple stressors threatening marine organisms, I describe the wealth of metaorganism response mechanisms to rapid ocean change and the ontogenetic shifts in organism interactions with the environment that can generate plasticity. I then highlight the need to consider the interactions of rapid and evolutionary responses in an adaptive (epi)genetic continuum. Building on the definitions of these mechanisms and continuum, I also present how the interplay of the microbiome, epigenetics and parental effects creates additional avenues for rapid acclimatization. To consider under what conditions epigenetic inheritance has a more substantial role, I propose investigation into the offset of timing of gametogenesis leading to different environmental integration times between eggs and sperm and the consequences of this for gamete epigenetic compatibility. Collectively, non-genetic, yet heritable phenotypic plasticity will have significant ecological and evolutionary implications for sessile marine organism persistence under rapid climate change. As such, reef-building corals present ideal and timesensitive models for further development of our understanding of adaptive feedback loops in a multi-player (epi)genetic continuum.

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Journal of Experimental Biology