Understanding the flexibility of the endosymbioses between scleractinian corals and single-cell algae of the genus Symbiodinium will provide valuable insights into the future of coral reefs. Here, a real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assay is presented to accurately determine the cell densities of Symbiodinium clades C and D in the scleractinian coral Acropora millepora, which can be extended to other coral-symbiont associations in the future. The assay targets single- to low-copy genes of the actin family of both the coral host and algal symbiont. Symbiont densities are expressed as the ratio of Symbiodinium cells to each host cell (S/H ratio, error within 30%), but can also be normalized to coral surface area. Greater accuracy in estimating ratios of associations involving multiple clades is achieved compared with previous real-time PCR assays based on high-copy ribosomal DNA loci (error within an order of magnitude). Healthy adult A. millepora containing ~1.4 × 10(6) zooxanthellae per cm(2) (as determined by haemocytometer counts) had S/H ratios of c. 0.15, i.e. ~15 symbiont cells per 100 host cells. In severely bleached colonies, this ratio decreased to less than 0.005. Because of its capacity to accurately determine both densities and ratios of multiple symbionts within one sample, the assay will open the door for novel research into the mechanisms of symbiont shuffling and switching.
© 2009 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.