Rapid Adaptation

March 29, 2018

Biologists discover that female purple sea urchins prime their progeny to succeed in the face of stress.

This story begins in the kelp forest and ends with a very important climate change message: All is not lost — at least not for purple sea urchins.

A new study by UC Santa Barbara marine biologists demonstrates that for females of the species (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus), exposure to stressful climate conditions such as low pH levels often makes for hardier, larger offspring. The group’s findings appear in the journal Molecular Ecology.

“We’ve known that these things go on in fish and other species, but we’ve never studied this in the context of climate change in the marine ecology of kelp forests,” said co-author Gretchen Hofmann, chair of UCSB’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology. “This project looked for evidence of rapid adaptation in organisms in response to a changing ocean — and we found it.”

Inspired by dynamic shifts in pH due to upwelling — the movement of nutrient-rich water toward the ocean surface — the researchers took urchins from the Santa Barbara Channel and brought them into the lab. The animals were held for about four months while the females made ripe eggs — a process called gametogenesis. When they spawned and were fertilized, the investigators tested the embryos.

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