Will variation among genetic individuals influence species responses to global climate change?

Increased anthropogenic CO2 emissions in the last two centuries have lead to rising sea surface temperature and falling ocean pH, and it is predicted that current global trends will worsen over the next few decades. There is limited understanding of how genetic variation among individuals will influence the responses of populations and species to these changes. A microcosm system was set up to study the effects of predicted temperature and CO2 levels on the bryozoan Celleporella hyalina. In this marine species, colonies grow by the addition of male, female and feeding modular individuals (zooids) and can be physically subdivided to produce a clone of genetically identical colonies. We studied colony growth rate (the addition of zooids), reproductive investment (the ratio of sexual to feeding zooids) and sex ratio (male to female zooids) in four genetically distinct clonal lines. There was a significant effect of clone on growth rate, reproductive investment and sex ratio, with clones showing contrasting responses to the various temperature and pH combinations. Overall, decreasing pH and increasing temperature caused reduction of growth, and eventual cessation of growth was often observed at the highest temperature, especially during the latter half of the 15-day trials. Reproductive investment increased with increasing temperature and decreasing pH, varying more widely with temperature at the lowest pH. The increased production of males, a general stress response of the bryozoan, was seen upon exposure to reduced pH, but was not expressed at the highest temperature tested, presumably due to the frequent cessation of growth. Further to the significant effect of pH on the measured whole-colony parameters, observation by scanning electron microscopy revealed surface pitting of the calcified exoskeleton in colonies that were exposed to increased acidity. Studying ecologically relevant processes of growth and reproduction, we demonstrate the existence of relevant levels of variation among genetic individuals which may enable future adaptation via non-mutational natural selection to falling pH and rising temperature.

Pistevos J. C. A., Calosi P., Widdicombe S., & Bishop J. D. D., in press. Will variation among genetic individuals influence species responses to global climate change? Oikos doi:10.1111/j.1600-0706.2010.19470.x. Article (subscription required).

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