Coral Reefs

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Predicting the spatial distribution of allele frequencies for a gene associated with tolerance to eutrophication and high temperature in the reef-building coral, Acropora millepora, on the Great Barrier Reef

  • Young K. JinEmail author
  • Stuart Kininmonth
  • Petra B. Lundgren
  • Madeleine J. H. van Oppen
  • Bette L. Willis


In the face of unprecedented rates of environmental alterations, the necessity to predict the capacity of corals to respond adaptively in a complex ecological system is becoming increasingly urgent. Recent findings that bleaching-resistant Acropora millepora coral populations have high frequencies of specific alleles provide an opportunity to use spatial mapping of alleles to identify resistant populations. In this study, a Bayesian belief network (BBN) model was developed to predict the spatial distribution of allele frequencies for a specific locus associated with bleaching resistance in response to acute eutrophication during the summertime in A. millepora in the Palm Islands (Great Barrier Reef, Australia). The BBN model enabled the putative responses of populations investigated to be extrapolated to other ‘equivalent’ populations that were previously not surveyed due to constraints of time, cost and logistics. A combination of long-term environmental monitoring data, allele frequency data, expert input and statistical evaluation was used to build the model, with the goal of refining prior beliefs and examining dependencies among environmental variables. The Bayesian simulation approach demonstrates that synergism between highly fluctuating temperatures and high nitrate concentrations may be the primary driver of selection for this locus. Consistently, spatial mapping of predicted allele frequencies reveals the tolerance allele is most likely to be concentrated in populations near the mouths of the Burdekin and Fitzroy Rivers. Corals from these river mouths are good candidates for assisted gene flow initiatives and also to restore reefs that are likely to be affected by eutrophication and ocean warming in the future. This approach opens up new opportunities for more efficient and effective coral reef management and conservation through direct intervention to ensure coral populations have the genetic diversity needed to optimise adaptation to rapid environmental change.


Coral Bleaching Environmental stressor Eutrophication Sea surface temperature Bayesian belief network Allele frequency Assisted gene flow Coral reef restoration 



We thank L. M. Peplow and J. Doyle for their technical support. Funding for this project was supported by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence, AIMS@JCU (James Cook University), and a JCU Graduate Research Scheme Grant to Y. K. Jin. SK acknowledges that this research was funded through the 2015–2016 BiodivERsA COFUND call for research proposals, with the national funders FORMAS.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

338_2019_1873_MOESM1_ESM.docx (720 kb)
Supplementary file 1 (DOCX 719 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Australian Institute of Marine ScienceTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  3. 3.College of Science and EngineeringJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  4. 4.College of Marine and Environmental SciencesAIMS@JCU, Australian Institute of Marine Science, James Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  5. 5.Marine and Coastal Resources InstitutePrince of Songkla UniversityHat YaiThailand
  6. 6.School of Marine StudiesUniversity of the South PacificSuvaFiji
  7. 7.Centre for Ecology and Evolutionary SynthesisUniversity of OsloOsloNorway
  8. 8.Great Barrier Reef FoundationBrisbaneAustralia
  9. 9.School of BioSciencesThe University of MelbourneParkvilleAustralia

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