Researchers at James Cook University and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Saudi Arabia) have figured out why some species of fish, principally reef fish, are able to adapt to rising water temperatures. Figuring out how and which species of fish can adapt in such ways will be important as climate change continues to increase the temperature of ocean water.
Researchers discovered that over subsequent generations, some fish can better adapt to increasing temperatures than others. Using a specially-built tank at the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, which is located at James Cook University, researchers were able to study the fish over four years and several generations.
They managed to isolate 53 individual genes within the fish that contributed to greater adaptability. By further studying these genes, researchers can figure out what biological processes contribute to temperature adaptability in fish, which may help us determine which species will stand the best chance for survival as the climate continues to change. Understanding these processes in fish could also help us understand them in other animals.
For example, the researchers learned that some proteins that respond to short-term temperature increases, called heat-shock proteins, aren’t useful in the long run. It would stand to reason that heat-shock proteins might be helpful, but they only work for short-term changes in temperature, not multigenerational adaptability. And it’s multigenerational adaptability which is important here, as water temperatures will rise gradually over the course of many generations of aquatic life, and those temperatures won’t be falling any time soon.
This is the first study to reveal the molecular processes that help coral reef fish deal with temperature change. Figuring out which species will have an easier time adapting to climate change, fish or otherwise, could be incredibly helpful in conservation efforts, allowing us to focus our efforts on those animals that can’t keep up.