Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Microbes capture, store, and release nitrogen to feed reef-building coral

Microscopic algae that live within reef-forming corals scoop up available nitrogen, store the excess in crystal form, and slowly feed it to the coral as needed, according to a study published in mBio®, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

Scientists have known for years that these symbiotic microorganisms serve up nitrogen to their coral hosts, but this new study sheds light on the dynamics of the process and reveals that the algae have the ability to store excess nitrogen, a capability that could help corals cope in their chronically low-nitrogen environment.

"It was a great surprise to find the nitrogen-rich crystals inside the algae," says corresponding author Anders Meibom of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland. "It all makes perfect sense now. The algae suck up the ammonium and nitrate like a sponge when the concentration of these molecules increases, then store this nitrogen as uric acid crystals for later use."

Like all reef-forming corals, the species they studied, Pocillopora damicornis, is actually a symbiosis of two different organisms: the coral provides protection to a species of photosynthetic algae called dinoflagellates, which, in turn, provide sugars and nitrogen to the coral host. The symbiosis allows the coral to thrive in clear, tropical waters that are naturally nutrient-poor. In many places, however, coral reefs are suffering from an excess of nutrients - pollution from sewage and fertilizers that impacts the symbiotic relationship and the health of coral in unknown ways.

To better understand these exchanges of materials and to determine how an excess of nutrients might affect the balance, the researchers exposed pieces of coral to varying concentrations of isotopically-labeled nitrogen-rich compounds. Using the facilities at the Aquarium Tropicale Porte Dorée in Paris, France, the scientists applied a relatively new analytic technique called nano-scale secondary ion mass-spectrometry (NanoSIMS) to follow the path of the nitrogen. NanoSIMS enabled them to visualize and quantify the uptake, movement, and accumulation of this labeled nitrogen within the coral.

When supplied with nitrogen in the form of ammonium, nitrate or aspartic acid the dinoflagellates responded by rapidly storing the nitrogen as crystals of uric acid within its cells. But the dinoflagellates don't hang onto the nitrogen for long. Starting at about six hours after exposure, the microbes begin translocating nitrogen-rich compounds to the coral host, where the nitrogen is used in specific cellular compartments all over the surface layers of the coral.

This storage and release process helps explain how these corals get through the ups and downs of nitrogen concentrations, says Meibom. "This gives the coral-algae symbiosis a very efficient way to deal with strong fluctuations in nitrogen availability," writes Meibom. "When the nitrogen availability suddenly becomes high, the algae can take-up large amounts of nitrogen on a timescale of a few hours, store it into crystals inside the algae cells and then release this stored nitrogen for metabolic processes and growth when the nitrogen levels become normal again."

To follow up on this work, Meibom says he and his colleagues are now studying how carbon-based nutrients are taken up and distributed in the same coral-algae symbiosis.

This research was supported by an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (BIOCARB) and by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

mBio® is an open access online journal published by the American Society for Microbiology to make microbiology research broadly accessible. The focus of the journal is on rapid publication of cutting-edge research spanning the entire spectrum of microbiology and related fields. It can be found online at

The American Society for Microbiology is the largest single life science society, composed of over 39,000 scientists and health professionals. ASM's mission is to advance the microbiological sciences as a vehicle for understanding life processes and to apply and communicate this knowledge for the improvement of health and environmental and economic well-being worldwide.

Jim Sliwa | EurekAlert!
Further information:

Further reports about: Meibom NanoSIMS coral reef metabolic process microbes microbiology uric acid

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Strong, steady forces at work during cell division
20.10.2016 | University of Massachusetts at Amherst

nachricht Disturbance wanted
20.10.2016 | Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Innovative technique for shaping light could solve bandwidth crunch

20.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

Finding the lightest superdeformed triaxial atomic nucleus

20.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

NASA's MAVEN mission observes ups and downs of water escape from Mars

20.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>