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Keywords:

  • bleaching;
  • coral;
  • gene expression;
  • microarray;
  • thermal stress

Abstract

The declining health of coral reefs worldwide is likely to intensify in response to continued anthropogenic disturbance from coastal development, pollution, and climate change. In response to these stresses, reef-building corals may exhibit bleaching, which marks the breakdown in symbiosis between coral and zooxanthellae. Mass coral bleaching due to elevated water temperature can devastate coral reefs on a large geographical scale. In order to understand the molecular and cellular basis of bleaching in corals, we have measured gene expression changes associated with thermal stress and bleaching using a complementary DNA microarray containing 1310 genes of the Caribbean coral Montastraea faveolata. In a first experiment, we identified differentially expressed genes by comparing experimentally bleached M. faveolata fragments to control non-heat-stressed fragments. In a second experiment, we identified differentially expressed genes during a time course experiment with four time points across 9 days. Results suggest that thermal stress and bleaching in M. faveolata affect the following processes: oxidative stress, Ca2+ homeostasis, cytoskeletal organization, cell death, calcification, metabolism, protein synthesis, heat shock protein activity, and transposon activity. These results represent the first medium-scale transcriptomic study focused on revealing the cellular foundation of thermal stress-induced coral bleaching. We postulate that oxidative stress in thermal-stressed corals causes a disruption of Ca2+ homeostasis, which in turn leads to cytoskeletal and cell adhesion changes, decreased calcification, and the initiation of cell death via apoptosis and necrosis.