Coral Bleaching – Breakdown of a Nutrient Exchange Symbiosis

  • Nils Rädecker

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


For millions of years, the nutrient exchange symbiosis between corals and their endosymbiotic algae has formed the foundation of the ecological success of coral reefs. Yet, in recent decades anthropogenic climate change is increasingly destabilizing this symbiosis, and thus the reefs that rely on it. High-temperature anomalies have caused mass mortality of corals due to repeated coral bleaching, the expulsion or digestion of symbionts by the host during stress. Hence, in-depth knowledge of the cellular processes of bleaching is required to conceive strategies to maintain the ecological functioning of coral reefs. In this thesis, we investigated the role of symbiotic nutrient cycling in the bleaching response of corals. For this, we examined the mechanisms that underlie the functioning of the symbiosis in a stable state and how heat stress affects these metabolic interactions during coral bleaching. Our findings reveal that the functioning of the coral – algae symbiosis depends on the resource competition between host and symbionts. In a stable state, symbiotic competition for ammonium limits nitrogen availability for the algal symbiont, thereby ensuring symbiotic carbon translocation and recycling. During heat stress, however, increased metabolic energy demand shifts host metabolism from amino acid synthesis to degradation. The resulting net release of ammonium by the host, coupled with the stimulated activity of associated nitrogen-fixing microbes, substantially increases nitrogen availability for algal symbionts. Subsequently, stimulated algal growth causes selfish retention of carbon, thereby further reducing energy availability for the host. This positive feedback loop disturbs symbiotic nutrient recycling, eventually causing the collapse of carbon translocation by the symbiont. Hence, heat stress causes shifts in metabolic interactions, which directly and indirectly destabilizes the symbiosis, and ultimately undermines the ecological benefits of hosting algal symbionts for corals. In summary, this thesis shows that integrating symbiotic nutrient cycling into our conceptual understanding of coral bleaching is likely to improve our ability to predict coral bleaching in light of environmental conditions and may ultimately help to conceive new strategies to preserve coral reef functioning.
Date of AwardJul 2019
Original languageEnglish (US)
Awarding Institution
  • Biological, Environmental Sciences and Engineering
SupervisorChristian Voolstra (Supervisor)


  • Endosymbiosis
  • Coral Bleaching
  • Nutrient Cycling
  • Dysbiosis
  • Nitrogen Fixation
  • Microbial Ecology

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