Diazotroph diversity and nitrogen fixation in the coral Stylophora pistillata from the Great Barrier Reef

  • The ISME Journalvolume 12pages813824 (2018)
  • doi:10.1038/s41396-017-0008-6
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Diazotrophs, both Bacteria and Archaea, capable of fixing nitrogen (N2), are present in the tissues and mucous, of corals and can supplement the coral holobiont nitrogen budget with fixed nitrogen (N) in the form of ammonia (NH3). Stylophora pistillata from Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef collected at 5 and 15 m, and experimentally manipulated in the laboratory, showed that the rates of net photosynthesis, steady state quantum yields of photosystem II (PSII) fluorescence (∆Fv/Fm′) and calcification varied based on irradiance as expected. Rates of N2 fixation were, however, invariant across treatments while the amount of fixed N contributing to Symbiodinium spp. N demand is irradiance dependent. Additionally, both the Symbiodinium and diazotrophic communities are significantly different based on depth, and novel Cluster V nifH gene phylotypes, which are not known to fix nitrogen, were recovered. A functional analysis using PICRUSt also showed that shallow corals were enriched in genes involved in nitrogen metabolism, and N2 fixation specifically. Corals have evolved a number of strategies to derive nitrogen from organic (e.g., heterotrophic feeding) and inorganic sources (e.g., N2 fixation) to maintain critical pathways such as protein synthesis to succeed ecologically in nitrogen-limited habitats.

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Thank you to Elizabeth Kintzing and Kerrie Enger for their assistance in the field and laboratory. Thank you to Chris Gaby for assistance with the nifH bioinformatics pipeline. The coral collections were made with the permission of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA collecting permit G15/374471.1). The National Science Foundation (OCE 1437054 to MPL) supported this research.

Author contributions

MPL and KMM designed and conducted the collections and experiments. MPL analyzed all physiological and environmental data. KMM conducted all sequencing. SHCN conducted calcification and surface area measurements. KMM and MSP conducted all bioinformatic, statistic, and PICRUSt analyses on sequence data. MPL, KMM, MSP, and SHCN wrote and approved the content of the manuscript.

Author information


  1. School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, 03824, USA

    • Michael P. Lesser
  2. Department of Molecular, Cellular and Biomedical Sciences, University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH, 03824, USA

    • Michael P. Lesser
    • , Kathleen M. Morrow
    •  & Sabrina M. Pankey
  3. Australian Institute of Marine Sciences, PMB 3, Townsville, QLD, 4810, Australia

    • Sam H. C. Noonan


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Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael P. Lesser.

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