Deciphering seagrass DNA helps to battle climate change

Summary

Flemish institutions have decoded the DNA of seagrass to determine which genes it gained and lost in its journey from the land to the sea

Adaptation is key

An international team of scientists, led by professor Yves Van de Peer of Ghent University (UGent) and Flemish life sciences research institute VIB, has deciphered the genome, or DNA code, of seagrass. The discovery provides an insight into how ecosystems can adapt to climate change.

Seagrasses evolved from land plants to organisms living in seawater and now thrive in shallow coastal waters. By colonising sedimentary shorelines of the world’s oceans, seagrasses found a vast new habitat free of terrestrial competitors and insect pests. But they had to adapt to cope with new challenges.

During its evolution, seagrass lost certain genes that are essential for land plants but developed new functions indispensable to survive in the salty and wet tidal zone. The success of this adaptation is demonstrated by their widespread presence along seacoasts in the northern hemisphere and the prominent role the plant plays in ocean ecosystems.

“Seagrasses not only sustain harvestable fish and invertebrates like lobster, shrimp and crab, they also play a part in controlling erosion and absorbing carbon dioxide,” said Van de Peer in a statement. “However, the increasing human activity in coastal areas puts ecosystems, including seagrass beds, under pressure.”

Deciphering the DNA code of seagrass can advance ecological studies on how marine ecosystems in general might adapt to global warming. The results of the study are published in the international science magazine Nature.