Specificity, stability and comparative physiology of coral-Symbiodinium mutualisms: Evaluating the potential for acclimation and/or adaptation in reef corals

Robin Tyler Smith, Florida International University


The relationship between reef corals and endosymbiotic dinoflagellates is fundamental to the existence of coral reefs. To evaluate the fidelity of coral-Symbiodinium mutualisms, corals maintained in aquaria for years were analyzed by denaturant gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE). Comparing Symbiodinium populations of captive aquarium colonies with known associations in nature is a practical way of examining partner flexibility. The finding of "normal" symbiont populations in corals existing under highly variable conditions supports the premise that most coral colonies possess stable associations. High sensitivity real-time PCR (rtPCR) was used to evaluate background populations of the putatively stress-tolerant Symbiodinium D in reef corals of the Caribbean. Analyses of samples collected during periods of environmental stability indicate the ability of Symbiodinium D to associate with a wider diversity of host taxa than previously recognized. To gain a broader perspective with regard to the ecology of Symbiodinium D1a, rtPCR and DGGE were used to evaluate the symbiont populations of reef corals from Barbados before and after the 2005 mass coral bleaching. Background populations were observed in 56% of the host genera prior to observations of bleaching. These findings indicate that 'stress', not 'bleaching', caused the displacement of 'natural' symbiont population and the opportunistic proliferation of D1a in many host taxa. Of the 12 host taxa monitored before and after the bleaching event, there was a 40% increase in colonies hosting Symbiodinium D1a. Together, these studies elucidate the mechanism responsible for recent observations reporting the emergence of Symbiodinium D following thermal disturbances. These observations are now most easily explained as the disproportionate growth of existing in hospite symbiont populations, rather than novel symbiont acquisition subsequent to bleaching. To evaluate the comparative "fitness" of corals able to host multiple symbiont types, rates of calcification were measured in P. verrucosa hosting either Symbiodinium C1b-c or D1 at elevated temperature. Rates of calcification decreased significantly for both host-symbiont combinations, but differences attributable to symbiont composition were not detected. This research improves our knowledge of the symbiosis biology and ecology of reef corals and contributes information necessary to most accurately predict the response of these ecosystems to global climate changes.

Subject Area

Molecular biology|Microbiology|Oceanography

Recommended Citation

Smith, Robin Tyler, "Specificity, stability and comparative physiology of coral-Symbiodinium mutualisms: Evaluating the potential for acclimation and/or adaptation in reef corals" (2008). ProQuest ETD Collection for FIU. AAI3319010.