Lineage-specific symbionts mediate differential coral responses to thermal stress

Chenying Wang, Xinqing Zheng, Hagit Kvitt, Huaxia Sheng, Danye Sun, Gaofeng Niu, Dan Tchernov, Tuo Shi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


BACKGROUND: Ocean warming is a leading cause of increasing episodes of coral bleaching, the dissociation between coral hosts and their dinoflagellate algal symbionts in the family Symbiodiniaceae. While the diversity and flexibility of Symbiodiniaceae is presumably responsible for variations in coral response to physical stressors such as elevated temperature, there is little data directly comparing physiological performance that accounts for symbiont identity associated with the same coral host species. Here, using Pocillopora damicornis harboring genotypically distinct Symbiodiniaceae strains, we examined the physiological responses of the coral holobiont and the dynamics of symbiont community change under thermal stress in a laboratory-controlled experiment.

RESULTS: We found that P. damicornis dominated with symbionts of metahaplotype D1-D4-D6 in the genus Durusdinium (i.e., PdD holobiont) was more robust to thermal stress than its counterpart with symbionts of metahaplotype C42-C1-C1b-C1c in the genus Cladocopium (i.e., PdC holobiont). Under ambient temperature, however, the thermally sensitive Cladocopium spp. exhibited higher photosynthetic efficiency and translocated more fixed carbon to the host, likely facilitating faster coral growth and calcification. Moreover, we observed a thermally induced increase in Durusdinium proportion in the PdC holobiont; however, this "symbiont shuffling" in the background was overwhelmed by the overall Cladocopium dominance, which coincided with faster coral bleaching and reduced calcification.

CONCLUSIONS: These findings support that lineage-specific symbiont dominance is a driver of distinct coral responses to thermal stress. In addition, we found that "symbiont shuffling" may begin with stress-forced, subtle changes in the rare biosphere to eventually trade off growth for increased resilience. Furthermore, the flexibility in corals' association with thermally tolerant symbiont lineages to adapt or acclimatize to future warming oceans should be viewed with conservative optimism as the current rate of environmental changes may outpace the evolutionary capabilities of corals. Video Abstract.

Original languageEnglish
Article number211
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023, BioMed Central Ltd., part of Springer Nature.


  • Animals
  • Anthozoa/physiology
  • Coral Reefs
  • Dinoflagellida
  • Photosynthesis
  • Symbiosis/physiology


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