Highly Dynamic Cellular-Level Response of Symbiotic Coral to a Sudden Increase in Environmental Nitrogen
Metabolic interactions with endosymbiotic photosynthetic dinoflagellate Symbiodinium spp. are fundamental to reef-building corals (Scleractinia) thriving in nutrient-poor tropical seas. Yet, detailed understanding at the single-cell level of nutrient assimilation, translocation, and utilization within this fundamental symbiosis is lacking. Using pulse-chase N-15 labeling and quantitative ion microprobe isotopic imaging (NanoSIMS; nanoscale secondary-ion mass spectrometry), we visualized these dynamic processes in tissues of the symbiotic coral Pocillopora damicornis at the subcellular level. Assimilation of ammonium, nitrate, and aspartic acid resulted in rapid incorporation of nitrogen into uric acid crystals (after similar to 45 min), forming temporary N storage sites within the dinoflagellate endosymbionts. Subsequent intracellular remobilization of this metabolite was accompanied by translocation of nitrogenous compounds to the coral host, starting at similar to 6 h. Within the coral tissue, nitrogen is utilized in specific cellular compartments in all four epithelia, including mucus chambers, Golgi bodies, and vesicles in calicoblastic cells. Our study shows how nitrogen-limited symbiotic corals take advantage of sudden changes in nitrogen availability; this opens new perspectives for functional studies of nutrient storage and remobilization in microbial symbioses in changing reef environments. IMPORTANCE The methodology applied, combining transmission electron microscopy with nanoscale secondary-ion mass spectrometry (NanoSIMS) imaging of coral tissue labeled with stable isotope tracers, allows quantification and submicrometric localization of metabolic fluxes in an intact symbiosis. This study opens the way for investigations of physiological adaptations of symbiotic systems to nutrient availability and for increasing knowledge of global nitrogen and carbon biogeochemical cycling.