Coral bleaching--capacity for acclimatization and adaptation

Adv Mar Biol. 2003;46:183-223. doi: 10.1016/s0065-2881(03)46004-5.


Coral bleaching, i.e., loss of most of the symbiotic zooxanthellae normally found within coral tissue, has occurred with increasing frequency on coral reefs throughout the world in the last 20 years, mostly during periods of El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Experiments and observations indicate that coral bleaching results primarily from elevated seawater temperatures under high light conditions, which increases rates of biochemical reactions associated with zooxanthellar photosynthesis, producing toxic forms of oxygen that interfere with cellular processes. Published projections of a baseline of increasing ocean temperature resulting from global warming have suggested that annual temperature maxima within 30 years may be at levels that will cause frequent coral bleaching and widespread mortality leading to decline of corals as dominant organisms on reefs. However, these projections have not considered the high variability in bleaching response that occurs among corals both within and among species. There is information that corals and their symbionts may be capable of acclimatization and selective adaptation to elevated temperatures that have already resulted in bleaching resistant coral populations, both locally and regionally, in various areas of the world. There are possible mechanisms that might provide resistance and protection to increased temperature and light. These include inducible heat shock proteins that act in refolding denatured cellular and structural proteins, production of oxidative enzymes that inactivate harmful oxygen radicals, fluorescent coral pigments that both reflect and dissipate light energy, and phenotypic adaptations of zooxanthellae and adaptive shifts in their populations at higher temperatures. Such mechanisms, when considered in conjunction with experimental and observational evidence for coral recovery in areas that have undergone coral bleaching, suggest an as yet undefined capacity in corals and zooxanthellae to adapt to conditions that have induced coral bleaching. Clearly, there are limits to acclimatory processes that can counter coral bleaching resulting from elevated sea temperatures, but scientific models will not accurately predict the fate of reef corals until we have a better understanding of coral-algal acclimatization/adaptation potential. Research is particularly needed with respect to the molecular and physiological mechanisms that promote thermal tolerance in corals and zooxanthellae and identification of genetic characteristics responsible for the variety of responses that occur in a coral bleaching event. Only then will we have some idea of the nature of likely responses, the timescales involved and the role of 'experience' in modifying bleaching impact.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Anthozoa / physiology*
  • Dinoflagellida / physiology*
  • Ecology
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Eukaryota / physiology*
  • Mortality
  • Pigmentation
  • Population Dynamics
  • Symbiosis / physiology