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Population genetic data of a model symbiotic cnidarian system reveal remarkable symbiotic specificity and vectored introductions across ocean basins


Correspondence: Daniel J. Thornhill, Fax: (01) 202 682 1331; E-mail:


The Aiptasia–Symbiodinium symbiosis is a promising model for experimental studies of cnidarian–dinoflagellate associations, yet relatively little is known regarding the genetic diversity of either symbiotic partner. To address this, we collected Aiptasia from 16 localities throughout the world and examined the genetic diversity of both anemones and their endosymbionts. Based on newly developed SCAR markers, Aiptasia consisted of two genetically distinct populations: one Aiptasia lineage from Florida and a second network of Aiptasia genotypes found at other localities. These populations did not conform to the distributions of described Aiptasia species, suggesting that taxonomic re-evaluation is needed in the light of molecular genetics. Associations with Symbiodinium further demonstrated the distinctions among Aiptasia populations. According to 18S RFLP, ITS2-DGGE and microsatellite flanker region sequencing, Florida anemones engaged in diverse symbioses predominantly with members of Symbiodinium Clades A and B, but also C, whereas anemones from elsewhere harboured only S. minutum within Clade B. Symbiodinium minutum apparently does not form a stable symbiosis with other hosts, which implies a highly specific symbiosis. Fine-scale differences among S. minutum populations were quantified using six microsatellite loci. Populations of S. minutum had low genotypic diversity and high clonality (R = 0.14). Furthermore, minimal population structure was observed among regions and ocean basins, due to allele and genotype sharing. The lack of genetic structure and low genotypic diversity suggest recent vectoring of Aiptasia and S. minutum across localities. This first ever molecular-genetic study of a globally distributed cnidarian and its Symbiodinium assemblages reveals host–symbiont specificity and widely distributed populations in an important model system.

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