• coral reef;
  • cyanobacteria;
  • ITS;
  • phylogeny;
  • Porifera;
  • symbiosis


Cyanobacteria are common members of sponge-associated bacterial communities and are particularly abundant symbionts of coral reef sponges. The unicellular cyanobacterium Synechococcus spongiarum is the most prevalent photosynthetic symbiont in marine sponges and inhabits taxonomically diverse hosts from tropical and temperate reefs worldwide. Despite the global distribution of S. spongiarum, molecular analyses report low levels of genetic divergence among 16S ribosomal RNA (rRNA) gene sequences from diverse sponge hosts, resulting either from the widespread dispersal ability of these symbionts or the low phylogenetic resolution of a conserved molecular marker. Partial 16S rRNA and entire 16S–23S rRNA internal transcribed spacer (ITS) genes were sequenced from cyanobacteria inhabiting 32 sponges (representing 18 species, six families and four orders) from six geographical regions. ITS phylogenies revealed 12 distinct clades of S. spongiarum that displayed 9% mean sequence divergence among clades and less than 1% sequence divergence within clades. Symbiont clades ranged in specificity from generalists to specialists, with most (10 of 12) clades detected in one or several closely related hosts. Although multiple symbiont clades inhabited some host sponges, symbiont communities appear to be structured by both geography and host phylogeny. In contrast, 16S rRNA sequences were highly conserved, exhibiting less than 1% sequence divergence among symbiont clades. ITS gene sequences displayed much higher variability than 16S rRNA sequences, highlighting the utility of ITS sequences in determining the genetic diversity and host specificity of S. spongiarum populations among reef sponges. The genetic diversity of S. spongiarum revealed by ITS sequences may be correlated with different physiological capabilities and environmental preferences that may generate variable host–symbiont interactions.