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PLoS ONE. 2007; 2(7): e644.
Published online Jul 25, 2007. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0000644
PMCID: PMC1924915

How Plastic Can Phenotypic Plasticity Be? The Branching Coral Stylophora pistillata as a Model System

Jürg Bähler, Academic Editor


Phenotypic plasticity enables multicellular organisms to adjust morphologies and various life history traits to variable environmental challenges. Here, we elucidate fixed and plastic architectural rules for colony astogeny in multiple types of colonial ramets, propagated by cutting from genets of the branching coral Stylophora pistillata from Eilat, the Red Sea. We examined 16 morphometric parameters on 136 one-year old S. pistillata colonies (of seven genotypes), originating from small fragments belonging, each, to one of three single-branch types (single tips, start-up, and advanced bifurcating tips) or to structural preparative manipulations (representing a single or two growth axes). Experiments were guided by the rationale that in colonial forms, complexity of evolving phenotypic plasticity can be associated with a degree of structural modularity, where shapes are approached by erecting iterative growth patterns at different levels of coral-colony organization. Analyses revealed plastic morphometric characters at branch level, and predetermined morphometric traits at colony level (only single trait exhibited plasticity under extreme manipulation state). Therefore, under the experimental manipulations of this study, phenotypic plasticity in S. pistillata appears to be related to branch level of organization, whereas colony traits are controlled by predetermined genetic architectural rules. Each level of organization undergoes its own mode of astogeny. However, depending on the original ramet structure, the spherical 3-D colonial architecture in this species is orchestrated and assembled by both developmental trajectories at the branch level, and traits at the colony level of organization. In nature, branching colonial forms are often subjected to harsh environmental conditions that cause fragmentation of colony into ramets of different sizes and structures. Developmental traits that are plastic, responding to fragment structure and are not predetermine in controlling astogeny, allow formation of species-specific architecture product through integrated but variable developmental routes. This adaptive plasticity or regeneration is an efficient mechanism by which isolated fragments of branching coral species cope with external environmental forces.

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