Most Low-Abundance “Background” Symbiodinium spp. Are Transitory and Have Minimal Functional Significance for Symbiotic Corals

Moo Joon Lee, Hae Jin Jeong, Se Hyeon Jang, Sung Yeon Lee, Nam Seon Kang, Kyung Ha Lee, Hyung Seop Kim, Drew C. Wham, Todd C. LaJeunesse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Scopus citations


Speculation surrounds the importance of ecologically cryptic Symbiodinium spp. (dinoflagellates) that occur at low abundances in reef-building corals and in the surrounding environment. Evidence acquired from extensive sampling, long-term monitoring, and experimental manipulation can allow us to deduce the ecology and functional significance of these populations and whether they might contribute to the response of coral-dinoflagellate mutualisms to climate change. Quantitative PCR was used here to diagnose the prevalence, seasonal variation, and abundances of Symbiodinium spp. within and between colonies of the coral, Alveopora japonica. Consistent with broader geographic sampling, only one species comprised 99.9 %, or greater, the population of symbionts in every sample. However, other Symbiodinium including the non-mutualistic species, Symbiodinium voratum, were often detected, but at estimated cell densities thousands-fold less than the dominant symbiont. The temporal variation in prevalence and abundances of these “background” Symbiodinium could not be definitively related to any particular environmental factor including seasonality and water chemistry. The prevalence (proportion detected among host samples), but not abundance, of S. voratum may weakly correspond to increases in environmental inorganic silica (SiO2) and possibly nitrogen (NO3). When multiple background Symbiodinium occurred within an individual polyp, the average cell densities were positively correlated, suggesting non-specific processes of cell sorting and retention by the animal. While these findings substantiate the existence of a broader, yet uncharacterized, diversity of Symbiodinium, we conclude that only those species which can occur in high abundance and are temporally stable are ultimately important to coral-dinoflagellate mutualisms. Many transient Symbiodinium spp., which occur only at trace abundances in the coral’s microbiome, belong to different functional guilds and likely have little, if any, importance to a coral’s physiology. The successful integration between host and symbiont into a stable functional unit should therefore be considered when defining host-symbiont specificity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)771-783
Number of pages13
JournalMicrobial Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Soil Science


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