Ultrastructure, molecular phylogenetics, and chlorophyll a content of novel cyanobacterial symbionts in temperate sponges

Microb Ecol. 2012 Oct;64(3):771-83. doi: 10.1007/s00248-012-0047-5. Epub 2012 Apr 19.


Marine sponges often harbor photosynthetic symbionts that may enhance host metabolism and ecological success, yet little is known about the factors that structure the diversity, specificity, and nature of these relationships. Here, we characterized the cyanobacterial symbionts in two congeneric and sympatric host sponges that exhibit distinct habitat preferences correlated with irradiance: Ircinia fasciculata (higher irradiance) and Ircinia variabilis (lower irradiance). Symbiont composition was similar among hosts and dominated by the sponge-specific cyanobacterium Synechococcus spongiarum. Phylogenetic analyses of 16S-23S rRNA internal transcribed spacer (ITS) gene sequences revealed that Mediterranean Ircinia spp. host a specific, novel symbiont clade ("M") within the S. spongiarum species complex. A second, rare cyanobacterium related to the ascidian symbiont Synechocystis trididemni was observed in low abundance in I. fasciculata and likewise corresponded to a new symbiont clade. Symbiont communities in I. fasciculata exhibited nearly twice the chlorophyll a concentrations of I. variabilis. Further, S. spongiarum clade M symbionts in I. fasciculata exhibited dense intracellular aggregations of glycogen granules, a storage product of photosynthetic carbon assimilation rarely observed in I. variabilis symbionts. In both host sponges, S. spongiarum cells were observed interacting with host archeocytes, although the lower photosynthetic activity of Cyanobacteria in I. variabilis suggests less symbiont-derived nutritional benefit. The observed differences in clade M symbionts among sponge hosts suggest that ambient irradiance conditions dictate symbiont photosynthetic activity and consequently may mediate the nature of host-symbiont relationships. In addition, the plasticity exhibited by clade M symbionts may be an adaptive attribute that allows for flexibility in host-symbiont interactions across the seasonal fluctuations in light and temperature characteristic of temperate environments.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Chlorophyll / metabolism*
  • Chlorophyll A
  • Climate
  • Cyanobacteria / genetics*
  • Cyanobacteria / metabolism
  • Cyanobacteria / ultrastructure*
  • DNA, Ribosomal Spacer / analysis
  • DNA, Ribosomal Spacer / genetics
  • Genetic Variation*
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission
  • Photosynthesis
  • Phylogeny*
  • Porifera / classification
  • Porifera / microbiology*
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / genetics
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Symbiosis*
  • Synechococcus / classification
  • Synechococcus / genetics
  • Synechococcus / metabolism
  • Synechococcus / ultrastructure


  • DNA, Ribosomal Spacer
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S
  • Chlorophyll
  • Chlorophyll A