The global decline of reef-building corals is due in part to the loss of algal symbionts, or "bleaching," during the increasingly frequent periods of high seawater temperatures. During bleaching, endosymbiotic dinoflagellate algae (Symbiodinium spp.) either are lost from the animal tissue or lose their photosynthetic pigments, resulting in host mortality if the Symbiodinium populations fail to recover. The >1,000 studies of the causes of heat-induced bleaching have focused overwhelmingly on the consequences of damage to algal photosynthetic processes, and the prevailing model for bleaching invokes a light-dependent generation of toxic reactive oxygen species (ROS) by heat-damaged chloroplasts as the primary trigger. However, the precise mechanisms of bleaching remain unknown, and there is evidence for involvement of multiple cellular processes. In this study, we asked the simple question of whether bleaching can be triggered by heat in the dark, in the absence of photosynthetically derived ROS. We used both the sea anemone model system Aiptasia and several species of reef-building corals to demonstrate that symbiont loss can occur rapidly during heat stress in complete darkness. Furthermore, we observed damage to the photosynthetic apparatus under these conditions in both Aiptasia endosymbionts and cultured Symbiodinium. These results do not directly contradict the view that light-stimulated ROS production is important in bleaching, but they do show that there must be another pathway leading to bleaching. Elucidation of this pathway should help to clarify bleaching mechanisms under the more usual conditions of heat stress in the light.
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