Distinguishing between Microbial Habitats Unravels Ecological Complexity in Coral Microbiomes. Academic Article uri icon


  • The diverse prokaryotic communities associated with reef-building corals may provide important ecological advantages to their threatened hosts. The consistency of relationships between corals and specific prokaryotes, however, is debated, and the locations where microbially mediated processes occur in the host are not resolved. Here, we examined how the prokaryotic associates of five common Caribbean corals with different evolutionary and ecological traits differ across mucus and tissue habitats. We used physical and chemical separation of coral mucus and tissue and sequencing of partial small-subunit rRNA genes of bacteria and archaea from these samples to demonstrate that coral tissue and mucus harbor unique reservoirs of prokaryotes, with 23 to 49% and 31 to 56% of sequences exclusive to the tissue and mucus habitats, respectively. Across all coral species, we found that 46 tissue- and 22 mucus-specific microbial members consistently associated with the different habitats. Sequences classifying as "Candidatus Amoebophilus," Bacteroidetes-affiliated intracellular symbionts of amoebae, emerged as previously unrecognized tissue associates of three coral species. This study demonstrates how coral habitat differentiation enables highly resolved examination of ecological interactions between corals and their associated microorganisms and identifies previously unrecognized tissue and mucus associates of Caribbean corals for future targeted study. IMPORTANCE This study demonstrates that coral tissue or mucus habitats structure the microbiome of corals and that separation of these habitats facilitates identification of consistent microbial associates. Using this approach, we demonstrated that sequences related to "Candidatus Amoebophilus," recognized intracellular symbionts of amoebae, were highly associated with the tissues of Caribbean corals and possibly endosymbionts of a protistan host within corals, adding a further degree of intricacy to coral holobiont symbioses. Examining specific habitats within complex hosts such as corals is useful for targeting important microbial associations that may otherwise be masked by the sheer microbial diversity associated with all host habitats.

publication date

  • September 2016