Crustose coralline algae (CCA) are a critical component of coral reefs as they accrete carbonate for reef structure and act as settlement substrata for many invertebrates including corals. CCA host a diversity of microorganisms that can also play a role in coral settlement and metamorphosis processes. Although the sensitivity of CCA to ocean acidification (OA) is well established, the response of their associated microbial communities to reduced pH and increased CO2 was previously not known. Here we investigate the sensitivity of CCA-associated microbial biofilms to OA and determine whether or not OA adversely affects the ability of CCA to induce coral larval metamorphosis. We experimentally exposed the CCA Hydrolithon onkodes to four pH/pCO2 conditions consistent with current IPCC predictions for the next few centuries (pH: 8.1, 7.9, 7.7, 7.5, pCO2 : 464, 822, 1187, 1638 μatm). Settlement and metamorphosis of coral larvae was reduced on CCA pre-exposed to pH 7.7 (pCO2 = 1187 μatm) and below over a 6-week period. Additional experiments demonstrated that low pH treatments did not directly affect the ability of larvae to settle, but instead most likely altered the biochemistry of the CCA or its microbial associates. Detailed microbial community analysis of the CCA revealed diverse bacterial assemblages that altered significantly between pH 8.1 (pCO2 = 464 μatm) and pH 7.9 (pCO2 = 822 μatm) with this trend continuing at lower pH/higher pCO2 treatments. The shift in microbial community composition primarily comprised changes in the abundance of the dominant microbes between the different pH treatments and the appearance of new (but rare) microbes at pH 7.5. Microbial shifts and the concomitant reduced ability of CCA to induce coral settlement under OA conditions projected to occur by 2100 is a significant concern for the development, maintenance and recovery of reefs globally.
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.