Lobsters changing their genes to survive climate change

Jon Deery investigates new research on how lobsters adapt to changing temperatures

Jon Deery
9th February 2021
Image: flickr
New research published in Ecology and Evolution has found lobsters to be more susceptible to climate change than previously thought. These marine organisms have been protecting themselves by firing genes that code for “heat shock proteins”, but scientists warn there could be a cost to this defensive process.

Oceans around the world are becoming hotter and more acidic as humans pump carbon into the atmosphere. Nowhere in the world is this process happening faster than in the Northwest Atlantic and Gulf of Maine, where the American lobster population lives.

Acidification is affecting these lobsters on a molecular scale.

According to Maura Niemisto, lead author and research associate at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, “acidification is affecting these lobsters on a molecular scale.” As a result, “they have genes firing at an even higher rate.”

Genes in every organism respond to environmental influence, choosing where and when to “fire”, which changes the balance of proteins in an organism’s body. In the case of these lobsters, the “heat shock protein” gene is being deployed in increasing amounts to toughen their exoskeletons against acidic water.

Niemisto wrote in the report that “virtually, all organisms upregulate [heat shock protein] expression as a method to alleviate physiologically stressful conditions. Thus, [heat shock proteins] can modify an organism's thermal sensitivity and act as important biological stress markers.”

The report suggests that all the energy going into the lobsters’ shells could be diverting from other vital systems, including their immune system.

But this “upregulation” (which just means increasing the production of a certain protein) could be causing some dangerous side effects for the lobsters. “If they're spending a lot of energy on building proteins to respond to stressors, something else has to give,” Niemisto said. The report suggests that all the energy going into the lobsters’ shells could be diverting from other vital systems, including their immune system.

Marine organisms worldwide are finding new, inventive ways to adapt to their changing climate. Eden’s Whales in the Gulf of Thailand have developed an energy-conserving hunting method that involves lying on their back with their mouths open and waiting for fish to jump in, for example. But the rate of acidification and warming is far too rapid for most organisms to make an adaptation that will save their species in the long run. 

The more data collected on how marine species are adapting to their changing environments, the more effective conservation efforts will be.

The authors of the lobster study say the next step is to continue researching these genetic responses, evaluating how they are playing out on a wider scale. The more data collected on how marine species are adapting to their changing environments, the more effective conservation efforts will be.

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