MEPS 364:97-106 (2008)  -  doi:10.3354/meps07588

Blue light regulation of host pigment in reef-building corals

Cecilia D’Angelo1, Andrea Denzel1, Alexander Vogt1, Mikhail V. Matz2, Franz Oswald3, Anya Salih4, G. Ulrich Nienhaus5,6, Jörg Wiedenmann1,7,*

1Institute of General Zoology and Endocrinology, and 5Institute of Biophysics, University of Ulm, Albert Einstein Allee 11, 89069 Ulm, Germany
2Integrative Biology, University of Texas in Austin, 1 University Station C0930, Austin, Texas 78712, USA
3Department of Internal Medicine I, Robert Koch Strasse 8, 89081 Ulm, Germany
4Confocal Bio-Imaging Facility, University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury Campus, Locked Bag 1797, Penrith South DC, New South Wales 1797, Australia
6Department of Physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1110 West Green, Urbana, Illinois 61801, USA
7Present address: National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton, Waterfront Campus, European Way, Southampton SO14 3ZH, UK
*Corresponding author. Email:

ABSTRACT: Reef-building corals harbor an astounding diversity of colorful GFP (green fluorescent protein)-like proteins. These pigments can easily be detected and thus may serve as intrinsic optical markers of physiological condition, provided that the determinants that control their expression are well understood. Here we have analyzed the effect of light on the regulation of major classes of GFP-like pigments in corals of the taxa Acroporidae, Merulinidae and Pocilloporidae. Pigment levels in the tissues of all studied species were observed to be tightly controlled by light. Two groups could be distinguished by their distinctly different light-dependent regulation. The low-threshold group contains mainly cyan fluorescent proteins; they are expressed in considerable amounts at very low light intensities, and their tissue content increases with light to a maximum at a photon flux of 400 µmol m–2 s–1. The high-threshold group includes green and red fluorescent proteins as well as non-fluorescent chromoproteins. These pigments are essentially absent in corals grown under very low light, but their tissue content increases in proportion to photon flux densities >400 µmol m–2 s–1. The enhancement of coral pigmentation is primarily dependent on the blue component of the spectrum and regulated at the transcriptional level. The specific regulation patterns suggest complex functions of GFP-like proteins related to the photobiology of reef corals. Moreover, the distinct response of coral coloration to light climate promises that the pigment complement can also be predicted in natural habitats. Our results stress the potential of GFP-like proteins as intrinsic markers of physiological processes, as well as overall health, in corals.


KEY WORDS: Fluorescent protein · Coral · Light-induced protein expression · Fluorescence · GFP · Green fluorescent protein · RFP · Red fluorescent protein · Light sensing · Coral health


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Cite this article as: D’Angelo C, Denzel A, Vogt A, Matz MV and others (2008) Blue light regulation of host pigment in reef-building corals. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 364:97-106

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