Rapid Acclimation Ability Mediated by Transcriptome Changes in Reef-Building Corals

Genome Biol Evol. 2015 May 15;7(6):1602-12. doi: 10.1093/gbe/evv085.


Population response to environmental variation involves adaptation, acclimation, or both. For long-lived organisms, acclimation likely generates a faster response but is only effective if the rates and limits of acclimation match the dynamics of local environmental variation. In coral reef habitats, heat stress from extreme ocean warming can occur over several weeks, resulting in symbiont expulsion and widespread coral death. However, transcriptome regulation during short-term acclimation is not well understood. We examined acclimation during a 11-day experiment in the coral Acropora nana. We acclimated colonies to three regimes: ambient temperature (29 °C), increased stable temperature (31 °C), and variable temperature (29-33 °C), mimicking local heat stress conditions. Within 7-11 days, individuals acclimated to increased temperatures had higher tolerance to acute heat stress. Despite physiological changes, no gene expression changes occurred during acclimation before acute heat stress. However, we found strikingly different transcriptional responses to heat stress between acclimation treatments across 893 contigs. Across these contigs, corals acclimated to higher temperatures (31 °C or 29-33 °C) exhibited a muted stress response--the magnitude of expression change before and after heat stress was less than in 29 °C acclimated corals. Our results show that corals have a rapid phase of acclimation that substantially increases their heat resilience within 7 days and that alters their transcriptional response to heat stress. This is in addition to a previously observed longer term response, distinguishable by its shift in baseline expression, under nonstressful conditions. Such rapid acclimation may provide some protection for this species of coral against slow onset of warming ocean temperatures.

Keywords: acclimation; climate change; coral; thermal tolerance; transcriptomics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization / genetics*
  • Animals
  • Anthozoa / genetics*
  • Anthozoa / metabolism
  • Coral Reefs
  • Heat-Shock Response / genetics
  • Transcriptome*