Bleaching forces coral’s heterotrophy on diazotrophs and Synechococcus


Coral reefs are threatened by global warming, which disrupts the symbiosis between corals and their photosynthetic symbionts (Symbiodiniaceae), leading to mass coral bleaching. Planktonic diazotrophs or dinitrogen (N2)-fixing prokaryotes are abundant in coral lagoon waters and could be an alternative nutrient source for corals. Here we incubated untreated and bleached coral colonies of Stylophora pistillata with a 15N2-pre-labelled natural plankton assemblage containing diazotrophs. 15N2 assimilation rates in Symbiodiniaceae cells and tissues of bleached corals were 5- and 30-fold higher, respectively, than those measured in untreated corals, demonstrating that corals incorporate more nitrogen derived from planktonic diazotrophs under bleaching conditions. Bleached corals also preferentially fed on Synechococcus, nitrogen-rich picophytoplanktonic cells, instead of Prochlorococcus and picoeukaryotes, which have a lower cellular nitrogen content. By providing an alternative source of bioavailable nitrogen, both the incorporation of nitrogen derived from planktonic diazotrophs and the ingestion of Synechococcus may have profound consequences for coral bleaching recovery, especially for the many coral reef ecosystems characterized by high abundance and activity of planktonic diazotrophs.

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VM was the beneficiary of a PhD grant from LabEx-Corail (MACADAM project). This work was also funded by the LabEx-Corail FLAMENCO project and the EC2CO/BIOHEFECT program (TOUCAN project). We wish to thank the technical staff of the Aquarium des Lagons (Nouméa, New Caledonia) for their welcome and assistance in tank maintenance. We are especially grateful to three anonymous reviewers for critical reading and valuable comments on this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Valentine Meunier.

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Meunier, V., Bonnet, S., Pernice, M. et al. Bleaching forces coral’s heterotrophy on diazotrophs and Synechococcus. ISME J 13, 2882–2886 (2019).

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