Long-term coral microbial community acclimatization is associated with coral survival in a changing climate

The plasticity of some coral-associated microbial communities under stressors like warming and ocean acidification suggests the microbiome has a role in the acclimatization of corals to future ocean conditions. Here, we evaluated the acclimatization potential of coral-associated microbial communities of four Hawaiian coral species (Porites compressaPorites lobataMontipora capitata, and Pocillopora acuta) over 22-month mesocosm experiment. The corals were exposed to one of four treatments: control, ocean acidification, ocean warming, or combined future ocean conditions. Over the 22-month study, 33–67% of corals died or experienced a loss of most live tissue coverage in the ocean warming and future ocean treatments while only 0–10% died in the ocean acidification and control. Among the survivors, coral-associated microbial communities responded to the chronic future ocean treatment in one of two ways: (1) microbial communities differed between the control and future ocean treatment, suggesting the potential capacity for acclimatization, or (2) microbial communities did not significantly differ between the control and future ocean treatment. The first strategy was observed in both Porites species and was associated with higher survivorship compared to Mcapitata and Pacuta which exhibited the second strategy. Interestingly, the microbial community responses to chronic stressors were independent of coral physiology. These findings indicate acclimatization of microbial communities may confer resilience in some species of corals to chronic warming associated with climate change. However, Mcapitata genets that survived the future ocean treatment hosted significantly different microbial communities from those that died, suggesting the microbial communities of the survivors conferred some resilience. Thus, even among coral species with inflexible microbial communities, some individuals may already be tolerant to future ocean conditions. These findings suggest that coral-associated microbial communities could play an important role in the persistence of some corals and underlie climate change-driven shifts in coral community composition.

Price J. T., McLachlan R. H., Jury C. P., Toonen R. J., Wilkins M. J. & Grottoli A. G., 2023. Long-term coral microbial community acclimatization is associated with coral survival in a changing climate. PLoS ONE 18(9): e0291503. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0291503. Article.

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