Specificity is rarely absolute in coral–algal symbiosis: Implications for coral response to climate change

Rachel N. Silverstein, Adrienne M.S. Correa, Andrew C. Baker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

135 Scopus citations


Some reef-building corals have been shown to respond to environmental change by shifting the composition of their algal symbiont (genus Symbiodinium) communities. These shifts have been proposed as a potential mechanism by which corals might survive climate stressors, such as increased temperatures. Conventional molecular methods suggest this adaptive capacity may not be widespread because few (~25%) coral species have been found to associate with multiple Symbiodinium clades. However, these methods can fail to detect low abundance symbionts (typically less than 10–20% of the total algal symbiont community). To determine whether additional Symbiodinium clades are present, but are not detected using conventional techniques, we applied a high-resolution, real-time PCR assay to survey Symbiodinium (in clades A–D) from 39 species of phylogenetically and geographically diverse scleractinian corals. This survey included 26 coral species thought to be restricted to hosting a single Symbiodinium clade (‘symbiotic specialists’). We detected at least two Symbiodinium clades (C and D) in at least one sample of all 39 coral species tested; all four Symbiodinium clades were detected in over half (54%) of the 26 symbiotic specialist coral species. Furthermore, on average, 68 per cent of all sampled colonies within a given coral species hosted two or more symbiont clades. We conclude that the ability to associate with multiple symbiont clades is common in scleractinian (stony) corals, and that, in coral–algal symbiosis, ‘specificity’ and ‘flexibility’ are relative terms: specificity is rarely absolute. The potential for reef corals to adapt or acclimatize to environmental change via symbiont community shifts may therefore be more phylogenetically widespread than has previously been assumed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2609-2618
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1738
StatePublished - Jul 7 2012


  • Biodiversity
  • Climate change
  • Coral reef
  • Real-time PCR
  • Symbiodinium
  • Thermotolerance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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