Evolutionary rescue of populations depends on their ability to produce phenotypic variation that is heritable and adaptive. DNA mutations are the best understood mechanisms to create phenotypic variation, but other, less well-studied mechanisms exist. Marine benthic foundation species provide opportunities to study these mechanisms because many are dominated by isogenic stands produced through asexual reproduction. For example, Caribbean acroporid corals are long lived and reproduce asexually via breakage of branches. Fragmentation is often the dominant mode of local population maintenance. Thus, large genets with many ramets (colonies) are common. Here, we observed phenotypic variation in stress responses within genets following the coral bleaching events in 2014 and 2015 caused by high water temperatures. This was not due to genetic variation in their symbiotic dinoflagellates (Symbiodinium “fitti”) because each genet of this coral species typically harbours a single strain of S. “fitti”. Characterization of the microbiome via 16S tag sequencing correlated the abundance of only two microbiome members (Tepidiphilus, Endozoicomonas) with a bleaching response. Epigenetic changes were significantly correlated with the host's genetic background, the location of the sampled polyps within the colonies (e.g., branch vs. base of colony), and differences in the colonies’ condition during the bleaching event. We conclude that long-term microenvironmental differences led to changes in the way the ramets methylated their genomes, contributing to the differential bleaching response. However, most of the variation in differential bleaching response among clonemates of Acropora palmata remains unexplained. This research provides novel data and hypotheses to help understand intragenet variability in stress phenotypes of sessile marine species.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics