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Coral bleaching events are characterized by a dysfunction between the cnidarian coral host and the symbiotic dinoflagellate algae, known as zooxanthellae (genus Symbiodinium). Elevated temperature and intense light induce coral bleaching, where zooxanthellae are expelled from
the host tissue. The primary cellular process in zooxanthellae which leads to coral bleaching is unresolved, and here, we investigated the sensitivity of the thylakoid membrane in a Symbiodinium culture and in genetically identified freshly isolated and expelled Symbiodinium
cells. The fluorescence-temperature curve technique was used to measure the critical temperature (Tc) at which irreversible damage to the thylakoid membrane occurred. The accuracy of this technique was confirmed through the collection of scanning transmission electron micrographs
which demonstrated the clear relationship between Tc and thylakoid membrane degradation. Analysis of 10 coral species with a diverse range of genetically distinct Symbiodinium communities showed a decline in Tc from summer to winter. A Symbiodinium culture
and fragments of Pocillopora damicornis (Linnaeus, 1758) were exposed to a series of light and temperature treatments, where Tc increased from approximately 37 °C to 42 °C upon exposure to elevated temperature. Under bleaching conditions, the thermostability of the
thylakoid membrane increased within 4 hrs by 5.1 °C, to a temperature far above bleaching thresholds, in both freshly isolated and photosynthetically competent zooxanthellae expelled from P. damicornis under these conditions. It is demonstrated that the thermostability of the thylakoid
membrane increases in cultured, freshly isolated, and expelled zooxanthellae exposed to bleaching stress, suggesting it is not the primary site of impact during coral bleaching events.
The Bulletin of Marine Science is dedicated to the dissemination of high quality research from the world's oceans. All aspects of marine science are treated by the Bulletin of Marine Science, including papers in marine biology, biological oceanography, fisheries, marine affairs, applied marine physics, marine geology and geophysics, marine and atmospheric chemistry, and meteorology and physical oceanography.