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July 2, 2015

School of Antarctic silversides

A school of Antarctic silversides (Menidia menidia).

As humans continue to pump carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, some of the CO2 gets absorbed into the sea, which raises its acidity--a process called ocean acidification. Scientists are seeking to learn whether or not organisms can adapt to this threat--whether or not species can evolve along with the ocean, adapting over time to the increasing acidity.

Hannes Baumann, an assistant professor of marine sciences who studies the phenomenon in his lab at UConns Avery Point campus, and colleagues are using the Atlantic silverside as their research subject, a common shallow water fish and an important food source for aquatic birds like egrets and cormorants, as well as commercially important fish species like bluefish and striped bass.

Baumann's team captured wild silverside and raised several groups of their offspring in the lab, some under normal ocean conditions and some in a more acidic environment. Next, they tracked the lifespan of each fish and analyzed their DNA, looking for what are called "microsatellites"--the same repetitive strands of DNA that are used in human paternity tests. Analysis revealed which fish were related to one another.

Results of the study found that fish that were related had similar lifespans, suggesting there is a significant genetic component to survival in an acidic ocean. This means fish do have the potential to evolve, a finding that may have important ramifications for predictions about how the ocean environment will change with the changing climate.

Baumann is enthusiastic about the results, primarily because it demonstrates a method by which the evolutionary potential of other species can be measured. "This is an experiment that can be performed in one generation," he says. He is hopeful that the results will prove useful in predicting how oysters, sea urchins and many other marine organisms will cope with the changing ocean environment.

This research was supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

To learn more, see the UConn Today blog story Evolving to Cope with Climate Change. (Date of Image: October 2007)

Credit: Chris Pickerell, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County (www.seagrassli.org).

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