Tracing the trophic plasticity of the coral-dinoflagellate symbiosis using amino acid compound-specific stable isotope analysis

Christine Ferrier-Pagès, Stephane Martinez, Renaud Grover, Jonathan Cybulski, Eli Shemesh, Dan Tchernov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The association between corals and photosynthetic dinoflagellates is one of the most well-known nutritional symbioses, but nowadays it is threatened by global changes. Nutritional exchanges are critical to understanding the performance of this symbiosis under stress conditions. Here, compound-specific δ15N and δ13C values of amino acids (δ15NAA and δ13CAA) were assessed in autotrophic, mixotrophic and heterotrophic holobionts as diagnostic tools to follow nutritional interactions between the partners. Contrary to what was expected, heterotrophy was mainly traced through the δ15N of the symbiont’s amino acids (AAs), suggesting that symbionts directly profit from host heterotrophy. The trophic index (TP) ranged from 1.1 to 2.3 from autotrophic to heterotrophic symbionts. In addition, changes in TP across conditions were more significant in the symbionts than in the host. The similar δ13C-AAs signatures of host and symbionts further suggests that symbiontderived photosynthates are the main source of carbon for AAs synthesis. Symbionts, therefore, appear to be a key component in the AAs biosynthetic pathways, and might, via this obligatory function, play an essential role in the capacity of corals to withstand environmental stress. These novel findings highlight important aspects of the nutritional exchanges in the coral-dinoflagellates symbiosis. In addition, they feature δ15NAA as a useful tool for studies regarding the nutritional exchanges within the coral-symbiodiniaceae symbiosis.

Original languageEnglish
Article number182
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

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© 2021 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.


  • Symbiodiniacea
  • compound specific isotope analysis of amino acids
  • coral
  • dinoflagellate
  • heterotrophy


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