Rare symbionts may contribute to the resilience of coral–algal assemblages

M. Ziegler, V.M. Eguíluz, C.M. Duarte, C.R Voolstra
The ISME Journal, volume 12, pp. 161-172, (2018)

Rare symbionts may contribute to the resilience of coral–algal assemblages


Rare symbionts, Resilience of coralalgal, Assemblages, Microbial ecology, Symbiosis


​The association between corals and photosynthetic dinoflagellates (Symbiodinium spp.) is the key to the success of reef ecosystems in highly oligotrophic environments, but it is also their Achilles‘ heel due to its vulnerability to local stressors and the effects of climate change. Research during the last two decades has shaped a view that coral host–Symbiodinium pairings are diverse, but largely exclusive. Deep sequencing has now revealed the existence of a rare diversity of cryptic Symbiodinium assemblages within the coral holobiont, in addition to one or a few abundant algal members. While the contribution of the most abundant resident Symbiodinium species to coral physiology is widely recognized, the significance of the rare and low abundant background Symbiodinium remains a matter of debate. In this study, we assessed how coral–Symbiodinium communities assemble and how rare and abundant components together constitute the Symbiodinium community by analyzing 892 coral samples comprising >110 000 unique Symbiodinium ITS2 marker gene sequences. Using network modeling, we show that host–Symbiodinium communities assemble in non-random ‘clusters‘ of abundant and rare symbionts. Symbiodinium community structure follows the same principles as bacterial communities, for which the functional significance of rare members (the ‘rare bacterial biosphere’) has long been recognized. Importantly, the inclusion of rare Symbiodinium taxa in robustness analyses revealed a significant contribution to the stability of the host–symbiont community overall. As such, it highlights the potential functions rare symbionts may provide to environmental resilience of the coral holobiont.


DOI: 10.1038/ismej.2017.151


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