Metagenomic analysis of the coral holobiont during a natural bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef

Environ Microbiol Rep. 2011 Dec;3(6):651-60. doi: 10.1111/j.1758-2229.2010.00234.x. Epub 2011 Jan 10.


Understanding the effects of elevated seawater temperatures on each member of the coral holobiont (the complex comprised of coral polyps and associated symbiotic microorganisms, including Bacteria, viruses, Fungi, Archaea and endolithic algae) is becoming increasingly important as evidence accumulates that microbial members contribute to overall coral health, particularly during thermal stress. Here we use a metagenomic approach to identify metabolic and taxonomic shifts in microbial communities associated with the hard coral Acropora millepora throughout a natural thermal bleaching event at Magnetic Island (Great Barrier Reef). A direct comparison of metagenomic data sets from healthy versus bleached corals indicated major shifts in microbial associates during heat stress, including Bacteria, Archaea, viruses, Fungi and micro-algae. Overall, metabolism of the microbial community shifted from autotrophy to heterotrophy, including increases in genes associated with the metabolism of fatty acids, proteins, simple carbohydrates, phosphorus and sulfur. In addition, the proportion of virulence genes was higher in the bleached library, indicating an increase in microorganisms capable of pathogenesis following bleaching. These results demonstrate that thermal stress results in shifts in coral-associated microbial communities that may lead to deteriorating coral health.