Coral photosymbiosis: Linking phylogenetic identity to single cell metabolic activity in mixed symbiont populations

Béatrice Gaume, Isabelle Domart-Coulon, Maoz Fine, Anders Meibom

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


Tropical reef-building corals live in symbiosis with a wide range of micro-organisms, including unicellular Symbiodinium dinoflagellates also called zooxanthellae. These photosynthetic endosymbionts live inside the coral gastroderm cells. Although corals can feed on planktonic preys, the dinoflagellates significantly contribute to the nutrition of their host by transferring a large fraction (up to 90%) of photosynthates that are produced through the fixation of dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) and nitrogen (nitrate or ammonium). Nine major clades (A-I) of Symbiodinium have been identified by molecular genetic analyses. Each clade presents distinct physiological features and the specific association between coral species and Symbiodinium clade determines the phenotype of the holobiont. Differences in the photosynthetic response to irradiance, rates of carbon fixation, and thermal tolerance can be attributed to symbiont clade. Several Symbiodinium clades can simultaneously exist within a single coral and the host can dynamically modify the proportion between dominant and background clades to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Investigating at the cellular level the metabolic exchanges between coral and Symbiodinium is of great interest to understand e.g. the bleaching process (loss of zooxanthellae) which often leads to coral death. We are aiming at quantitatively image the differential metabolic activity between symbiont clades in the same host, in the intact symbiosis. Previous studies have used mass bulk techniques to investigate the metabolism of symbionts at the colony scale. However, such studies cannot determine the specific contribution of the individual cells, as a function of their distribution in the coral host tissue. We have developed a SIMS-ISH method combining nanoscale secondary ion mass spectrometry (NanoSIMS) and in situ hybridization (ISH) for the simultaneous in situ identification of Symbiodinium genotype, and visualization of symbiont-host metabolic exchange at the level of individual cell. We focus on two reef-building coral species Pocillopora damicornis and Stylophora pistillata for which a large amount of complementary metabolic data exists. We designed specific fluorescent DNA probes to identify clade C Symbiodinium in P. damicornis and clade A in S. pistillata, and in mixed cultures. We combined the probes with pulse-chase experiments using isotopically labeled seawater (13C-bicarbonate and 15N-nitrate) to attribute a particular metabolism to a specific clade. This combined method enables us to phylogenetically identify metabolically active cells from a NanoSIMS isotopic/elemental image. The precise correlation between TEM and the NanoSIMS isotopic maps allows us to follow the turnover and translocation of metabolites with sub-cellular precision in both the symbionts and the host. Due to the complex nature of the coral symbiosis, the ability to discriminate the phylogenetic identity and metabolic role of specific Symbiodinium populations in situ is crucial to understand the effects of environmental stress on the coral holobiont plasticity. Moreover, analyzing symbiotic associations in situ provides a unique insight into the spatio-temporal patterns of metabolic interactions in holobionts. This analytical breakthrough promises to open entirely new areas of research focused on understanding the dynamics of interactions between animals and the microbial world.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInternational Conference Holobionts
StatePublished - 2017


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