Although it’s hard to predict exactly how that loss will affect the environment, it’s likely to change the structure of the entire ecosystem. Without algae-eating urchins, “you might predict that algae will become dominant in a particular area, which then might affect availability of fish that live there, which could affect the fishing industry or even tourism,” Hoffman says.Hoffman is now collaborating with scientists in New Zealand and Mexico to study the impact of ocean warming and acidification in other areas. She hopes her work will spur more researchers to develop chips for other organisms, including those that are economically important, such as fish raised in fisheries. “I’d like to see the tools we’re developing be used as widely as possible in as many ecosystems as possible,” says Hoffman.
Some similar studies are under way. Coral, which protects coastal regions from storms and floods and provides habitats for thousands of marine species, may be particularly susceptible to warming oceans. When water temperatures climb, coral “bleaches,” meaning that the algae that live in the coral and give it its color die off. Monica Medina, a geneticist at the University of California, Merced, is developing genetic tools to study both the coral and the algal symbionts that live within it. She wants to determine what genes are activated both when coral begins to bleach and when it begins to recover.
George Somero and his colleagues at Stanford University are working much farther south. They have developed a microarray for fish that they are now using to study a specific species living in the Antarctic. Previous studies have shown that the fish, which is a major food source for marine mammals, has lost its ability to activate heat-shock proteins, and therefore it may be particularly vulnerable to climate change. “Now we’re using gene chips to see if they have lost other stress-response mechanisms,” says Somero. “We want to know what happens when the environment collapses. That hasn’t really been done before.”