Hernandez-Agreda et al. 2016

scientific article | mBio | open access

The Microbial Signature Provides Insight into the Mechanistic Basis of Coral Success across Reef Habitats

Hernandez-Agreda A, Leggat W, Bongaerts P, Ainsworth TD


For ecosystems vulnerable to environmental change, understanding the spatiotemporal stability of functionally crucial symbioses is fundamental to determining the mechanisms by which these ecosystems may persist. The coral Pachyseris speciosa is a successful environmental generalist that succeeds in diverse reef habitats. The generalist nature of this coral suggests it may have the capacity to form functionally significant microbial partnerships to facilitate access to a range of nutritional sources within different habitats. Here, we propose that coral is a metaorganism hosting three functionally distinct microbial interactions: a ubiquitous core microbiome of very few symbiotic host-selected bacteria, a microbiome of spatially and/or regionally explicit core microbes filling functional niches (<100 phylotypes), and a highly variable bacterial community that is responsive to biotic and abiotic processes across spatial and temporal scales (>100,000 phylotypes). We find that this coral hosts upwards of 170,000 distinct phylotypes and provide evidence for the persistence of a select group of bacteria in corals across environmental habitats of the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea. We further show that a higher number of bacteria are consistently associated with corals on mesophotic reefs than on shallow reefs. An increase in microbial diversity with depth suggests reliance by this coral on bacteria for nutrient acquisition on reefs exposed to nutrient upwelling. Understanding the complex microbial communities of host organisms across broad biotic and abiotic environments as functionally distinct microbiomes can provide insight into those interactions that are ubiquitous niche symbioses and those that provide competitive advantage within the hosts’ environment. IMPORTANCE Corals have been proposed as the most diverse microbial biosphere. The high variability of microbial communities has hampered the identification of bacteria playing key functional roles that contribute to coral survival. Exploring the bacterial community in a coral with a broad environmental distribution, we found a group of bacteria present across all environments and a higher number of bacteria consistently associated with mesophotic corals (60 to 80 m). These results provide evidence of consistent and ubiquitous coral-bacterial partnerships and support the consideration of corals as metaorganisms hosting three functionally distinct microbiomes: a ubiquitous core microbiome, a microbiome filling functional niches, and a highly variable bacterial community.

Depth range
10- 80 m

Mesophotic “mentions”
7 x (total of 5405 words)

* Presents original data
* Focused on 'mesophotic' depth range
* Focused on 'mesophotic coral ecosystem'

Molecular ecology

Scleractinia (Hard Corals)
Bacteria and Archaea

Australia - Coral Sea
Australia - Great Barrier Reef

Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV)
SCUBA (open-circuit or unspecified)

Author profiles