Bleaching in stony-corals is the result of disruption of symbiosis between the coral hosts and photosynthetic microalgal endosymbionts (zooxanthellae). Coral bleaching events of unprecedented frequency and global extent have been reported during the last two decades. Recently, we demonstrated that bleaching of the coral Oculina patagonica in the Mediterranean Sea is caused by the bacterium Vibrio shlloi, when seawater temperature rises and allows the bacterium to become virulent. The first step in the infection process is host-specific adhesion of V. shiloi to O. patagonica via a β-galactoside receptor on the coral surface. The bacterium then penetrates into the coral tissue and produces extracellular materials which rapidly inhibit photosynthesis of zooxanthellae and bleach and lyse the algae. The inhibition of photosynthesis is due to a low molecular weight, heat stable toxin and ammonia. Bleaching and lysis are due to a heat-labile, high molecular weight materials, probably lyric enzymes. Elevated temperature induces different virulence factors within the infectious agent of the disease, V. shiloi. Adhesion was found to be temperature-regulated. When the bacteria were grown at 16°C there was no adhesion to corals maintained at either 25°C or 16°. However, when the bacteria were grown at 25°C they adhered avidly to corals maintained at 16°C and 25°C. In addition, the production of lytic enzymes and the photosynthesis inhibitor was also found to be temperature dependent. Production of the latter toxin was ten times greater at 29°C than at 16°C, and extracellular protease was 5-fold higher in cultures grown at 29°C than at 16°C. The data presented here suggest an explanation for the correlation between elevated seawater temperatures and seasonal coral bleaching.
- Bacterial infection