Host-symbiont recombination versus natural selection in the response of coral-dinoflagellate symbioses to environmental disturbance

Todd C. LaJeunesse, Robin Smith, Mariana Walther, Jorge Pinzón, Daniel T. Pettay, Michael McGinley, Matthew Aschaffenburg, Pedro Medina-Rosas, Amilcar L. Cupul-Magaña, Andrés López Pérez, Hector Reyes-Bonilla, Mark E. Warner

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222 Scopus citations


Mutualisms between reef-building corals and endosymbiotic dinoflagellates are particularly sensitive to environmental stress, yet the ecosystems they construct have endured major oscillations in global climate. During the winter of 2008, an extreme cold-water event occurred in the Gulf of California that bleached corals in the genus Pocillopora harbouring a thermally 'sensitive' symbiont, designated Symbiodinium C1b-c, while colonies possessing Symbiodinium D1 were mostly unaffected. Certain bleached colonies recovered quickly while others suffered partial or complete mortality. In most colonies, no appreciable change was observed in the identity of the original symbiont, indicating that these partnerships are stable. During the initial phases of recovery, a third species of symbiont B1Aiptasia, genetically identical to that harboured by the invasive anemone, Aiptasia sp., grew opportunistically and was visible as lightyellow patches on the branch tips of several colonies. However, this symbiont did not persist and was displaced in all cases by C1b-c several months later. Colonies with D1 were abundant at inshore habitats along the continental eastern Pacific, where seasonal turbidity is high relative to offshore islands. Environmental conditions of the central and southern coasts of Mexico were not sufficient to explain the exclusivity of D1 Pocillopora in these regions. It is possible that mass mortalities associated with major thermal disturbances during the 1997-1998 El Niño Southern Oscillation eliminated C1b-c holobionts from these locations. The differential loss of Pocillopora holobionts in response to thermal stress suggests that natural selection on existing variation can cause rapid and significant shifts in the frequency of particular coral- algal partnerships. However, coral populations may take decades to recover following episodes of severe selection, thereby raising considerable uncertainty about the long-term viability of these communities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2925-2934
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1696
StatePublished - Oct 7 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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