Unicellular photosynthetic dinoflagellates of the genus Symbiodinium are the most common endosymbionts of reef-building scleractinian corals, living in a symbiotic partnership known to be highly susceptible to environmental changes such as hyperthermic stress. In this study, we identified members of two major heat shock proteins (HSPs) families, Hsp70 and Hsp90, in Symbiodinium sp. (clade C) with full-length sequences that showed the highest similarity and evolutionary relationship with other known HSPs from dinoflagellate protists. Regulation of HSPs gene expression was examined in samples of the scleractinian coral Acropora millepora subjected to elevated temperatures progressively over 18 h (fast) and 120 h (gradual thermal stress). Moderate to severe heat stress at 26°C and 29°C (+3°C and +6°C above average sea temperature) resulted in an increase in algal Hsp70 gene expression from 39% to 57%, while extreme heat stress (+9°C) reduced Hsp70 transcript abundance by 60% (after 18 h) and 70% (after 120 h). Elevated temperatures decreased an Hsp90 expression under both rapid and gradual heat stress scenarios. Comparable Hsp70 and Hsp90 gene expression patterns were observed in Symbiodinium cultures and in hospite, indicating their independent regulation from the host. Differential gene expression profiles observed for Hsp70 and Hsp90 suggests diverse roles of these molecular chaperones during heat stress response. Reduced expression of the Hsp90 gene under heat stress can indicate a reduced role in inhibiting the heat shock transcription factor which may lead to activation of heat-inducible genes and heat acclimation. © Cell Stress Society International 2010.