Mutualistic organisms can be particularly susceptible to climate change stress, as their survivorship is often limited by the most vulnerable partner. However, symbiotic plasticity can also help organisms in changing environments by expanding their realized niche space. Coral-algal (Symbiodinium spp.) symbiosis exemplifies this dichotomy: the partnership is highly susceptible to 'bleaching' (stress-induced symbiosis breakdown), but stress-tolerant symbionts can also sometimes mitigate bleaching. Here, we investigate the role of diverse and mutable symbiotic partnerships in increasing corals' ability to thrive in high temperature conditions. We conducted repeat bleaching and recovery experiments on the coral Montastraea cavernosa, and used quantitative PCR and chlorophyll fluorometry to assess the structure and function of Symbiodinium communities within coral hosts. During an initial heat exposure (32 °C for 10 days), corals hosting only stress-sensitive symbionts (Symbiodinium C3) bleached, but recovered (at either 24 °C or 29 °C) with predominantly (>90%) stress-tolerant symbionts (Symbiodinium D1a), which were not detected before bleaching (either due to absence or extreme low abundance). When a second heat stress (also 32 °C for 10 days) was applied 3 months later, corals that previously bleached and were now dominated by D1a Symbiodinium experienced less photodamage and symbiont loss compared to control corals that had not been previously bleached, and were therefore still dominated by Symbiodinium C3. Additional corals that were initially bleached without heat by a herbicide (DCMU, at 24 °C) also recovered predominantly with D1a symbionts, and similarly lost fewer symbionts during subsequent thermal stress. Increased thermotolerance was also not observed in C3-dominated corals that were acclimated for 3 months to warmer temperatures (29 °C) before heat stress. These findings indicate that increased thermotolerance post-bleaching resulted from symbiont community composition changes, not prior heat exposure. Moreover, initially undetectable D1a symbionts became dominant only after bleaching, and were critical to corals' resilience after stress and resistance to future stress.
Dengue fever, a viral disease spread by the mosquito Aedes aegypti, affects 50-100 million people a year in many tropical countries. Because the virus must incubate within mosquito hosts for two weeks before being able to transmit the infection, shortening the lifespan of mosquitoes may curtail dengue transmission. We developed a continuous time reaction-diffusion model of the spatial spread of Wolbachia through a population of A. aegypti. This model incorporates the lifespan-shortening effects of Wolbachia on infected A. aegypti and the fitness advantage to infected females due to cytoplasmic incompatibility (CI). We found that local establishment of the Wolbachia infection can occur if the fitness advantage due to CI exceeds the fitness reduction due to lifespan-shortening effects, in accordance with earlier results concerning fecundity reduction. However, spatial spread is possible only if the fitness advantage due to CI is twice as great as the fitness reduction due to lifespan shortening effects. Moreover, lifespan-shortening and fecundity-reduction can have different effects on the speed of wave-retreat. Using data from the literature, we estimated all demographic parameters for infected and uninfected mosquitoes and computed the velocities of spread of infection. Our most optimistic estimates suggest that the spatial spread of lifespan-shortening Wolbachia may be so slow that efficient spatial spread would require a prohibitively large number of point releases. However, as these estimates of demographic parameters may not accurately reflect natural conditions, further research is necessary to corroborate these predictions.
Coral reefs are declining worldwide due to increased incidence of climate-induced coral bleaching, which will have widespread biodiversity and economic impacts. A simple method to measure the sub-bleaching level of heat-light stress experienced by corals would greatly inform reef management practices by making it possible to assess the distribution of bleaching risks among individual reef sites. Gene expression analysis based on quantitative PCR (qPCR) can be used as a diagnostic tool to determine coral condition in situ. We evaluated the expression of 13 candidate genes during heat-light stress in a common Caribbean coral Porites astreoides, and observed strong and consistent changes in gene expression in two independent experiments. Furthermore, we found that the apparent return to baseline expression levels during a recovery phase was rapid, despite visible signs of colony bleaching. We show that the response to acute heat-light stress in P. astreoides can be monitored by measuring the difference in expression of only two genes: Hsp16 and actin. We demonstrate that this assay discriminates between corals sampled from two field sites experiencing different temperatures. We also show that the assay is applicable to an Indo-Pacific congener, P. lobata, and therefore could potentially be used to diagnose acute heat-light stress on coral reefs worldwide.
Some reef-building corals have been shown to respond to environmental change by shifting the composition of their algal symbiont (genus Symbiodinium) communities. These shifts have been proposed as a potential mechanism by which corals might survive climate stressors, such as increased temperatures. Conventional molecular methods suggest this adaptive capacity may not be widespread because few (?25%) coral species have been found to associate with multiple Symbiodinium clades. However, these methods can fail to detect low abundance symbionts (typically less than 10-20% of the total algal symbiont community). To determine whether additional Symbiodinium clades are present, but are not detected using conventional techniques, we applied a high-resolution, real-time PCR assay to survey Symbiodinium (in clades A-D) from 39 species of phylogenetically and geographically diverse scleractinian corals. This survey included 26 coral species thought to be restricted to hosting a single Symbiodinium clade (symbiotic specialists). We detected at least two Symbiodinium clades (C and D) in at least one sample of all 39 coral species tested; all four Symbiodinium clades were detected in over half (54%) of the 26 symbiotic specialist coral species. Furthermore, on average, 68 per cent of all sampled colonies within a given coral species hosted two or more symbiont clades. We conclude that the ability to associate with multiple symbiont clades is common in scleractinian (stony) corals, and that, in coral-algal symbiosis, specificity and flexibility are relative terms: specificity is rarely absolute. The potential for reef corals to adapt or acclimatize to environmental change via symbiont community shifts may therefore be more phylogenetically widespread than has previously been assumed.
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