MEPS 250:117-124 (2003)  -  doi:10.3354/meps250117

Stability of an octocoral-algal symbiosis over time and space

Tamar L. Goulet1,2,*, Mary Alice Coffroth1

1Department of Biological Sciences, State University of New York at Buffalo, 661 Hochstetter Hall, Buffalo, New York 14260, USA
2Present address: Department of Biology, University of Mississippi, 524 Shoemaker Hall, Mississippi 38677, USA

ABSTRACT: In symbiosis, 2 taxonomically different organisms co-exist, each pursuing their own agenda and yet, they are linked in one entity. A mutualistic symbiosis may break up if it is no longer beneficial to either one of the partners. Changing needs over time or changing environmental conditions may prompt symbiont switching. For example, corals may survive elevated temperatures by switching their algal symbionts. If switching occurs, the new combination of host and symbiont genotypes may perform better. Conversely, the partners may be fixed for life, with the degree to which the mutualism responds to changing selection pressures dictated by the existing partners. Understanding the genotypic dynamics of a mutualism is important for predicting the potential resilience of a mutualism over time and in the face of environmental perturbations. Although mutualisms tend to be characterized at the species level or higher, host-symbiont dynamics is an individual-level question, requiring individual-level analysis. We used multilocus DNA fingerprinting to examine long-term temporal and spatial symbiont change in the mutualism between the octocoral Plexaura kuna and its algal symbionts (zooxanthellae). We monitored zooxanthella genotypes within a colony for up to 10 yr, among P. kuna clonemates, across different habitats and in colonies transplanted to novel environments. In all instances, the prominent zooxanthella genotype within a P. kuna colony remained unchanged although zooxanthella genotypes varied among genetically distinct P. kuna colonies. Such tremendous temporal and spatial stability may occur in other coral hosts, influencing the reaction and survival of mutualisms during environmental change.


KEY WORDS: Symbiosis · Zooxanthellae · Corals · Plexaura kuna · Genotype · Multilocus DNA fingerprinting · Stability


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