The Development of Novel Genetic Markers in Coral Communities Impacted by the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico

Timothy Shank, Biology
Santiago Herrera, Biology


Project summary

We propose the targeted acquisition of novel genetic data from deep-water corals and their associate species to determine the potential impact of the loss of coral communities as a result of the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) incident. Through the development of high-resolution genetic markers (Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms - SNPs), we will to assess the genetic loss, population genetic connectivity, and parameters associated with potential deep-water coral community recovery in the Gulf of Mexico. The generation of these novel markers (heretofore never used for assessing connectivity of corals or their associated species in the deep sea) and their demonstrated use to assess population connectivity (and potential larval sources) will provide fundamental insights into their feasibility for use in the design and assessment of oil spill restoration in deep-sea Gulf communities to the National Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) effort and the British Petroleum Corporation (BP).

As a result of previous work by the authors of this proposal (as part of the Lophelia II BOEMRE/ NOAA OER program, an NSF RAPID study, and NRDA funded work), a deep-water coral community impacted by the DWH incident was discovered on the border of the Mississippi Canyon 294 and 338 lease blocks. This community was primarily structured by the gorgonian coral Paramuricea cf. biscaya, a species that provides habitat for its common associate, the ophiuroid brittle star Asteroschema cf. clavigerum. Follow-up NRDA studies are revealing that this impact was the result of exposure to the DWH incident. Recent sampling of these fauna at deep-water coral sites as well as upcoming sampling efforts (scheduled for October 2011) based on the recent discovery of 7 communities (Shank, Chief Scientist of AUV Sentry cruise) in the vicinity of the DWH are
providing the samples necessary for the proposed work. The NRDA and BP now seek to understand how recovery of deep Gulf communities will take place. Specifically, they want to know if and how coral communities are (genetically) connected in the Gulf of Mexico. Will impacted coral sites in the eastern Gulf near the DWH recover through the migration of larvae from western populations? Are the eastern sites larval sources for western populations? To address these questions, the use of traditional population genetic markers, such as gene sequences and microsatellites, is insufficient to resolve such small spatial and temporal scales of migration. Here we propose to develop and utilize the latest population genomic tools to: 1) assess genetic diversity and connectivity among the two dominant species found at impacted sites; 2) address the potential loss of unique
genetic diversity at MC 338 as well as; 3) identify the potential this loss may have for further impacts on the genetic communication and recovery among intraspecific populations inhabiting other nearby and distant sites relative to the Deepwater Horizon.