Integrative and Comparative Biology
As climate change challenges organismal fitness by creating a phenotype–environment mismatch, phenotypic plasticity generated by epigenetic mechanisms (e.g., DNA methylation) can provide a temporal buffer for genetic adaptation. Epigenetic mechanisms may be crucial for sessile benthic marine organisms, such as reef-building corals, where ocean acidification (OA) and warming reflect in strong negative responses. We tested the potential for scleractinian corals to exhibit phenotypic plasticity associated with a change in DNA methylation in response to OA. Clonal coral fragments of the environmentally sensitive Pocillopora damicornis and more environmentally robust Montipora capitata were exposed to fluctuating ambient pH (7.9–7.65) and low pH (7.6–7.35) conditions in common garden tanks for ~6 weeks. M. capitata responded weakly, or acclimated more quickly, to OA, with no difference in calcification, minimal separation of metabolomic profiles, and no change in DNA methylation between treatments. Conversely, P. damicornis exhibited diminished calcification at low pH, stronger separation in metabolomic profiles, and responsiveness of DNA methylation to treatment. Our data suggest corals differ in their temporal dynamics and sensitivity for environmentally triggered real-time epigenetic reprogramming. The generation of potentially heritable plasticity via environmental induction of DNA methylation provides an avenue for assisted evolution applications in corals under rapid climate change.