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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1999 Jul 6;96(14):8007-12.

Damage to photosystem II in symbiotic dinoflagellates: a determinant of coral bleaching.

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  • 1Department of Botany, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602, USA.


Coral bleaching has been defined as a general phenomenon, whereby reef corals turn visibly pale because of the loss of their symbiotic dinoflagellates and/or algal pigments during periods of exposure to elevated seawater temperatures. During the summer of 1997, seawater temperatures in the Florida Keys remained at or above 30 degrees C for more than 6 weeks, and extensive coral bleaching was observed. Bleached colonies of the dominant Caribbean reef-building species, Montastrea faveolata and Montastrea franksi, were sampled over a depth gradient from 1 to 17 m during this period of elevated temperature and contained lower densities of symbiotic dinoflagellates in deeper corals than seen in previous "nonbleaching" years. Fluorescence analysis by pulse-amplitude modulation fluorometry revealed severe damage to photosystem II (PSII) in remaining symbionts within the corals, with greater damage indicated at deeper depths. Dinoflagellates with the greatest loss in PSII activity also showed a significant decline in the D1 reaction center protein of PSII, as measured by immunoblot analysis. Laboratory experiments on the temperature-sensitive species Montastrea annularis, as well as temperature-sensitive and temperature-tolerant cultured symbiotic dinoflagellates, confirmed the temperature-dependent loss of PSII activity and concomitant decrease in D1 reaction center protein seen in symbionts collected from corals naturally bleached on the reef. In addition, variation in PSII repair was detected, indicating that perturbation of PSII protein turnover rates during photoinhibition at elevated temperatures underlies the physiological collapse of symbionts in corals susceptible to heat-induced bleaching.

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