Apoptosis and the selective survival of host animals following thermal bleaching in zooxanthellate corals

Dan Tchernov, Hagit Kvitt, Liti Haramaty, Thomas S. Bibbyd, Maxim Y. Gorbunov, Hanna Rosenfeld, Paul G. Falkowski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


During the past several decades, numerous reports from disparate geographical areas have documented an increased frequency of "bleaching" in reef-forming corals. The phenomenon, triggered by increased sea surface temperatures, occurs when the cnidarian hosts digest and/or expel their intracellular, photosynthetic dinoflagellate symbionts ("zooxanthellae" in the genus Symbiodinium). Although coral bleaching is often followed by the death of the animal hosts, in some cases, the animal survives and can be repopulated with viable zooxanthellae. The physiological factors determining the ability of the coral to survive bleaching events are poorly understood. In this study, we experimentally established that bleaching and death of the host animal involve a caspase-mediated apoptotic cascade induced by reactive oxygen species produced primarily by the algal symbionts. In addition, we demonstrate that, although some corals naturally suppress caspase activity and significantly reduce caspase concentration under high temperatures as a mechanism to prevent colony death from apoptosis, even sensitive corals can be prevented from dying by application of exogenous inhibitors of caspases. Our results indicate that variability in response to thermal stress in corals is determined by a four-element, combinatorial genetic matrix intrinsic to the specific symbiotic association. Based on our experimental data, we present a working model in which the phenotypic expression of this symbiont/host relationship places a selective pressure on the symbiotic association. The model predicts the survival of the host animals in which the caspase-mediated apoptotic cascade is down-regulated.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9905-9909
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number24
StatePublished - 14 Jun 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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