Microbial invasion of the Caribbean by an Indo-Pacific coral zooxanthella


Human-induced environmental changes have ushered in the rapid decline of coral reef ecosystems, particularly by disrupting the symbioses between reef-building corals and their photosymbionts. However, escalating stressful conditions enable some symbionts to thrive as opportunists. We present evidence that a stress-tolerant “zooxanthella” from the Indo-Pacific Ocean, Symbiodinium trenchii, has rapidly spread to coral communities across the Greater Carib- bean. In marked contrast to populations from the Indo-Pacific, Atlantic populations of S. trenchii contained exceptionally low genetic diversity, including several widespread and genetically similar clones. Colonies with this symbiont tolerate temperatures 1–2 °C higher than other host–symbiont combinations; however, calcification by hosts harboring S. trenchii is reduced by nearly half, compared with those harboring natives, and suggests that these new symbioses are maladapted. Unforeseen opportunism and geographical expansion by invasive mutualistic microbes could profoundly influence the response of reef coral symbioses to major environmental perturbations but may ultimately com- promise ecosystem stability and function. 

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