The Study of Oyster Resiliency in an Ever-Changing Coastal Environment

Much like people, oysters have a unique genetic makeup that is different from every other member of its species. Dr. Morgan Kelly, assistant professor in Biological Sciences in the College of Science, studies these Louisiana culinary favorites and how variations in their genetic code can affect their vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.

“Very few species can tolerate the fluctuations in salinity and temperature that oysters can handle,” Dr. Kelly explained about an oyster’s ability to adapt to changes in the environment. “In my research, I use fieldwork, laboratory experiments and DNA sequencing to understand how ocean life responds to changes in the environment and how it may respond in the future. This will help us anticipate how ecologically and economically important species will be affected by climate change.”

The study of oysters remains economically and culturally important to Louisiana because of their ecosystem - filtering water and providing habitats for other species. A large part of Dr. Kelly’s research is understanding how oysters will be affected by the influx of freshwater.

“In the near future, oysters’ habitats will be heavily affected due to the increasing amounts of freshwater from the state’s diversions and severe rain in the region,” Dr. Kelly mentioned.

The work being conducted by Dr. Kelly and her graduate students helps to identify which oyster populations are likely to be the most resilient to those changes in the environment, and what the ‘tipping points’ are in terms of high temperatures or too much fresh water.

“We are trying to understand when the climate will cause irreversible damage to the natural systems and the human economies that depend on them,” Dr. Kelly explained.

Coastal resources are a central part of Louisiana’s economy and a pivotal research area for LSU. Dr. Kelly’s work furthers LSU’s mission to be a world leader in coastal conservation, energy and environmental studies.

“LSU is poised to become a global leader in understanding how coastal ecosystems and human economies are intimately connected, and how changes in one system impact the other,” Dr. Kelly said. “We couldn’t do the work we do anywhere but LSU.”