Animals acquire photosynthetically-fixed carbon by forming symbioses with algae and cyanobacteria. These associations are widespread in the phyla Porifera (sponges) and Cnidaria (corals, sea anemones etc.) but otherwise uncommon or absent from animal phyla. It is suggested that one factor contributing to the distribution of animal symbioses is the morphologically-simple body plan of the Porifera and Cnidaria with a large surface area:volume relationship well-suited to light capture by symbiotic algae in their tissues. Photosynthetic products are released from living symbiont cells to the animal host at substantial rates. Research with algal cells freshly isolated from the symbioses suggests that low molecular weight compounds (e.g. maltose, glycerol) are the major release products but further research is required to assess the relevance of these results to the algae in the intact symbiosis. Photosynthesis also poses risks for the animal because environmental perturbations, especially elevated temperature or irradiance, can lead to the production of reactive oxygen species, damage to membranes and proteins, and 'bleaching', including breakdown of the symbiosis. The contribution of non-photochemical quenching and membrane lipid composition of the algae to bleaching susceptibility is assessed. More generally, the development of genomic techniques to help understand the processes underlying the function and breakdown of function in photosynthetic symbioses is advocated.