Worldwide Occurrence and Activity of the Reef-Building Coral Symbiont Symbiodinium in the Open Ocean

Johan Decelle*, Quentin Carradec, Xavier Pochon, Nicolas Henry, Sarah Romac, Frédéric Mahé, Micah Dunthorn, Artem Kourlaiev, Christian R. Voolstra, Patrick Wincker, Colomban de Vargas

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


The dinoflagellate microalga Symbiodinium sustains coral reefs, one of the most diverse ecosystems of the biosphere, through mutualistic endosymbioses with a wide diversity of benthic hosts [1]. Despite its ecological and economic importance, the presence of Symbiodinium in open oceanic waters remains unknown, which represents a significant knowledge gap to fully understand the eco-evolutionary trajectory and resilience of endangered Symbiodinium-based symbioses. Here, we document the existence of Symbiodinium (i.e., now the family Symbiodiniaceae [2]) in tropical- and temperate-surface oceans using DNA and RNA metabarcoding of size-fractionated plankton samples collected at 109 stations across the globe. Symbiodinium from clades A and C were, by far, the most prevalent and widely distributed lineages (representing 0.1% of phytoplankton reads), while other lineages (clades B, D, E, F, and G) were present but rare. Concurrent metatranscriptomics analyses using the Tara Oceans gene catalog [3] revealed that Symbiodinium clades A and C were transcriptionally active in the open ocean and expressed core metabolic pathways (e.g., photosynthesis, carbon fixation, glycolysis, and ammonium uptake). Metabarcodes and expressed genes of clades A and C were detected in small and large plankton size fractions, suggesting the existence of a free-living population and a symbiotic lifestyle within planktonic hosts, respectively. However, high-resolution genetic markers and microscopy are required to confirm the life history of oceanic Symbiodinium. Overall, the previously unknown, metabolically active presence of Symbiodinium in oceanic waters opens up new avenues for investigating the potential of this oceanic reservoir to repopulate coral reefs following stress-induced bleaching. Decelle et al. show that the reef-building coral symbiont Symbiodinium occurs in the world's oceanic waters far from reef ecosystems. Clades A and C are the dominant Symbiodinium lineages in the ocean. Their gene expression for core metabolic pathways in small and large plankton fractions suggests both free-living and symbiotic lifestyles.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3625-3633.e3
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number22
StatePublished - Nov 19 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Elsevier Ltd


  • Symbiodinium
  • Tara Oceans
  • coral reefs
  • marine plankton
  • metabarcoding
  • metatranscriptomics
  • open ocean
  • phytoplankton
  • symbiosis

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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