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Appl Environ Microbiol. 2003 Jul;69(7):4236-42.

Temperature-regulated bleaching and lysis of the coral Pocillopora damicornis by the novel pathogen Vibrio coralliilyticus.

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Department of Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology, Tel Aviv University, Ramat Aviv, Israel 69978.


Coral bleaching is the disruption of symbioses between coral animals and their photosynthetic microalgal endosymbionts (zooxanthellae). It has been suggested that large-scale bleaching episodes are linked to global warming. The data presented here demonstrate that Vibrio coralliilyticus is an etiological agent of bleaching of the coral Pocillopora damicornis. This bacterium was present at high levels in bleached P. damicornis but absent from healthy corals. The bacterium was isolated in pure culture, characterized microbiologically, and shown to cause bleaching when it was inoculated onto healthy corals at 25 degrees C. The pathogen was reisolated from the diseased tissues of the infected corals. The zooxanthella concentration in the bacterium-bleached corals was less than 12% of the zooxanthella concentration in healthy corals. When P. damicornis was infected with V. coralliilyticus at higher temperatures (27 and 29 degrees C), the corals lysed within 2 weeks, indicating that the seawater temperature is a critical environmental parameter in determining the outcome of infection. A large increase in the level of the extracellular protease activity of V. coralliilyticus occurred at the same temperature range (24 to 28 degrees C) as the transition from bleaching to lysis of the corals. We suggest that bleaching of P. damicornis results from an attack on the algae, whereas bacterium-induced lysis and death are promoted by bacterial extracellular proteases. The data presented here support the bacterial hypothesis of coral bleaching.

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