Nitrate competition in a coral symbiosis varies with temperature among Symbiodinium clades

ISME J. 2013 Jun;7(6):1248-51. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2013.12. Epub 2013 Feb 14.


Many reef-building corals form symbioses with dinoflagellates from the diverse genus Symbiodinium. There is increasing evidence of functional significance to Symbiodinium diversity, which affects the coral holobiont's response to changing environmental conditions. For example, corals hosting Symbiodinium from the clade D taxon exhibit greater resistance to heat-induced coral bleaching than conspecifics hosting the more common clade C. Yet, the relatively low prevalence of clade D suggests that this trait is not advantageous in non-stressful environments. Thus, clade D may only be able to out-compete other Symbiodinium types within the host habitat when conditions are chronically stressful. Previous studies have observed enhanced photosynthesis and fitness by clade C holobionts at non-stressful temperatures, relative to clade D. Yet, carbon-centered metrics cannot account for enhanced growth rates and patterns of symbiont succession to other genetic types when nitrogen often limits reef productivity. To investigate the metabolic costs of hosting thermally tolerant symbionts, we examined the assimilation and translocation of inorganic (15)N and (13)C in the coral Acropora tenuis experimentally infected with either clade C (sub-type C1) or D Symbiodinium at 28 and 30 °C. We show that at 28 °C, C1 holobionts acquired 22% more (15)N than clade D. However, at 30 °C, C1 symbionts acquired equivalent nitrogen and 16% less carbon than D. We hypothesize that C1 competitively excludes clade D in hospite via enhanced nitrogen acquisition and thus dominates coral populations despite warming oceans.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anthozoa / classification
  • Anthozoa / growth & development
  • Anthozoa / physiology*
  • Carbon / metabolism
  • Coral Reefs*
  • Dinoflagellida / genetics
  • Dinoflagellida / physiology*
  • Nitrates / metabolism
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Photosynthesis
  • Symbiosis
  • Temperature


  • Nitrates
  • Carbon