Thermotolerant coral symbionts modulate heat stress-responsive genes in their hosts

Ross Cunning, Andrew C. Baker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Some corals may become more resistant to bleaching by shuffling their Symbiodiniaceae communities toward thermally tolerant species, and manipulations to boost the abundance of these symbionts in corals may increase resilience in warming oceans. However, the thermotolerant symbiont Durusdinium trenchii may reduce growth and fecundity in Caribbean corals, and these tradeoffs need to be better understood as this symbiont spreads through the region. We sought to understand how D. trenchii modulates coral gene expression by manipulating symbiont communities in Montastraea cavernosa to produce replicate ramets containing D. trenchii together with paired ramets of these same genets (n = 3) containing Cladocopium C3 symbionts. We then examined differences in global gene expression between corals hosting Durusdinium and Cladocopium under control temperatures, and in response to short-term heat stress. We identified numerous transcriptional differences associated with symbiont identity, which explained 2%–14% of the transcriptional variance. Corals with D. trenchii upregulated genes related to translation, ribosomal structure and biogenesis, and downregulated genes related to extracellular structures, and carbohydrate and lipid transport and metabolism, relative to corals with Cladocopium. Unexpectedly, these changes were similar to those observed in Cladocopium-dominated corals in response to heat stress, suggesting that thermotolerant D. trenchii may cause corals to increase expression of heat stress-responsive genes, explaining both the increased heat tolerance and the associated energetic tradeoffs in corals containing D. trenchii. These findings provide insight into the ecological changes occurring on contemporary coral reefs in response to climate change, and the diverse ways in which different symbionts modulate emergent phenotypes of their hosts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2940-2950
Number of pages11
JournalMolecular ecology
Issue number15
StatePublished - Aug 1 2020


  • Durusdinium trenchii
  • Montastraea cavernosa
  • coral bleaching
  • tag-based RNA-seq
  • tagSeq
  • transcriptome

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics


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