The daunting task of addressing global changes in climate has taken center stage in the scientific community for years. Despite the— rightfully— alarming statistics that flood our news feeds every day on this issue, FIU Tropics and CREST CAChE PhD student Javier Rodriguez-Casariego wants you to know that it’s not all doom and gloom. There is hope.
As a PhD student in FIU’s Environmental Epigenetics Lab (EEL) under major advisor Dr. Jose Eirin-Lopez, Casariego works primarily with a type of organism that is directly impacted by climate change and that we have all heard a lot about— corals.
His work aims to determine whether or not corals have epigenetic mechanisms that may help them adapt to the rapidly changing climate. While the topic of environmental epigenetics might sound intimidating on its own, Casariego breaks it down in a surprisingly simple way:
“Imagine that your genome is a recipe book and that every gene is a recipe. You never really use your entire recipe book— you can’t use every recipe at the same time. So, depending on what you need, you use one recipe or the other. Epigenetic mechanisms are the ones that decide which recipe we need to use, and then activate the system to go after that recipe.
What is interesting, is that these mechanisms can be influenced by environmental conditions. This means that depending on where you live and the environment that you are exposed to, a certain set of genes are going to be expressed at a certain point. This also means that every organism has a chance to acclimatize to a specific environment. It could be a way to evolve faster, rather than waiting for mutations to occur.
What is also interesting is that these epigenetic mechanisms are heritable. The exposure of your parents is going to influence the way that you express your genes.”
So, what does all of this have to do with corals and other organisms impacted by climate change? If Casariego and environmental epigenetics researchers like him are able to determine that organisms do have these mechanisms, the next step would then be to try to prepare corals (and other organisms) to face these environmental changes by exposing them to controlled conditions.
The specific type of coral stressors that Casariego studies are nutrients, which are primarily considered local stressors rather than global stressors. He argues, however, that both global and local stressors must be given significance by the scientific community. His idea is to offer the importance of global change in the context of local influences, which are now having global impacts.
“As a scientist I want to understand the why and the how,” explains Casariego. “You need to get the public’s attention by telling them the reality: it’s a very complex situation. We are dealing with mass extinction and very bad environmental conditions, but we cannot accept that we are doomed. The main message that I would like to express through my research is that there needs to be hope.”
The Eirin-Lopez Environmental Epigenetics Lab is part of the Marine Sciences Program in the Department of Biological Sciences at FIU. The EELab is affiliated with the Institute of Water and Environment, an FIU preeminent program.