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Background: Coral reefs worldwide are in decline. Much of the mortality can be attributed to coral bleaching (loss of the coral’s intracellular photosynthetic algal symbiont) associated with global warming. How corals will respond to increasing oceanic temperatures has been an area of extensive study and debate. Recovery after a bleaching event is dependent on regaining symbionts, but the source of repopulating symbionts is poorly understood. Possibilities include recovery from the proliferation of endogenous symbionts or recovery by uptake of exogenous stress-tolerant symbionts.

Methodology/Principal Findings: To test one of these possibilities, the ability of corals to acquire exogenous symbionts, bleached colonies of Porites divaricata were exposed to symbiont types not normally found within this coral and symbiont acquisition was monitored. After three weeks exposure to exogenous symbionts, these novel symbionts were detected in some of the recovering corals, providing the first experimental evidence that scleractinian corals are capable of temporarily acquiring symbionts from the water column after bleaching. However, the acquisition was transient, indicating that the new symbioses were unstable. Only those symbiont types present before bleaching were stable upon recovery, demonstrating that recovery was from the resident in situ symbiont populations.

Conclusions/Significance: These findings suggest that some corals do not have the ability to adjust to climate warming by acquiring and maintaining exogenous, more stress-tolerant symbionts. This has serious ramifications for the success of coral reefs and surrounding ecosystems and suggests that unless actions are taken to reverse it, climate change will lead to decreases in biodiversity and a loss of coral reefs.


Article originally published in 2010 in PLoS ONE:

Coffroth MA, Poland DM, Petrou EL, Brazeau DA, Holmberg JC (2010) Environmental Symbiont Acquisition May Not Be the Solution to Warming Seas for Reef-Building Corals. PLoS ONE 5(10): e13258. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013258



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