A comparative metabolomics approach detects stress-specific responses during coral bleaching in soft corals

Chronic exposure to ocean acidification and elevated sea-surface temperatures pose significant stress to marine ecosystems. This in turn necessitates costly acclimation responses in corals in both the symbiont and host, with a re-organization of cell metabolism and structure. A large-scale untargeted metabolomics approach comprising gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and ultra performance liquid chromatography coupled to high resolution mass spectrometry (UPLC–MS) was applied to profile the metabolite composition of the soft coral Sarcophyton ehrenbergi and its dinoflagellate symbiont. Metabolite profiling compared ambient conditions with response to simulated climate change stressors and with the sister species, S. glaucum. Among ca. 300 monitored metabolites, 13 metabolites were modulated. Incubation experiments providing four selected upregulated metabolites (alanine, GABA, nicotinic acid and proline) in the culturing water failed to subside the bleaching response at temperature-induced stress, despite their known ability to mitigate heat stress in plants or animals. Thus the results hint to metabolite accumulation (marker) during heat stress. This study provides the first detailed map of metabolic pathways transition in corals in response to different environmental stresses, accounting for the superior thermal tolerance of S ehrenbergi versus S. glaucum which can ultimately help maintain a viable symbiosis and mitigate against coral bleaching.

Farag M. A. Meyer A., Ali S. A., Salem M. A., Giavalisco P., Westphal H. & Wessjohann L. A., in press. A comparative metabolomics approach detects stress-specific responses during coral bleaching in soft corals. Journal of Proteome Research. Article (subscription required).

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