Reef-Building Corals Farm and Feed on their Photosynthetic Symbionts

Wiedenmann, J., D.Angelo, C., Loreto Mardones, M., Moore, S., Benkwitt, C.E., Graham, N.A.J., Hambach, B., Wilson, P.A., Vanstone, J., Eyal, G., Ben-Zvi, O., Loya, Y., Genin, A. (2023). Reef-building corals farm and feed on their photosynthetic symbionts. Nature.


Coral reefs are highly diverse ecosystems that thrive in nutrient-poor waters, a phenomenon frequently referred to as the Darwin paradox. The energy demand of coral animal hosts can often be fully met by the excess production of carbon-rich photosynthates by their algal symbionts. However, the understanding of mechanisms that enable corals to acquire the vital nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus from their symbionts is incomplete. Here we show, through a series of long-term experiments, that the uptake of dissolved inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus by the symbionts alone is sufficient to sustain rapid coral growth. Next, considering the nitrogen and phosphorus budgets of host and symbionts, we identify that these nutrients are gathered through symbiont ‘farming’ and are translocated to the host by digestion of excess symbiont cells. Finally, we use a large-scale natural experiment in which seabirds fertilize some reefs but not others, to show that the efficient utilization of dissolved inorganic nutrients by symbiotic corals established in our laboratory experiments has the potential to enhance coral growth in the wild at the ecosystem level. Feeding on symbionts enables coral animals to tap into an important nutrient pool and helps to explain the evolutionary and ecological success of symbiotic corals in nutrient-limited waters.

DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06442-5