Abstract: Current conservation goals for reef-building corals under climate change involve boosting desirable traits like heat tolerance and fast growth in natural and restored coral populations. This may be accomplished through a number of interventions including symbiotic manipulation, selective propagation and breeding, and assisted gene flow. However, the success of these interventions depends on understanding how the desired traits are controlled by the coral host, its algal symbionts, and the environment (i.e., genotype by genotype by environment interactions). Here I will describe research aimed at characterizing these interactions in the growth and thermal tolerance in several Caribbean coral species through both laboratory and field approaches. In the lab, variability in heat tolerance is linked to both the identity of symbionts, which modulate host gene expression, as well as the genetics of the coral host. In the field, large-scale reciprocal transplant experiments are revealing genotype by environment interactions in coral growth, and new approaches to quantifying thermal tolerance at the individual level are being used to identify high-performing and resilient genotypes across whole populations. This phenotypic catalog will help determine the genomic basis of key performance traits, and guide effective intervention strategies for coral conservation under climate change.
Biography: Dr. Cunning started at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in 2018 after working extensively at the University of Miami and the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology. His research has been focused on quantitative analyses of coral symbioses ranging from genetic identification to gene expression, genomics, and bioenergetic modeling.
At Shedd, Cunning leads a broad program on coral reef conservation research involving extensive fieldwork on the R/V Coral Reef II, molecular genetic work in Shedd’s microbial ecology lab, and engagement with the aquarium’s large and diverse audiences.