Gittins JR, D’Angelo C, Oswald F, Edwards RJ & Wiedenmann J (2014): Fluorescent protein-mediated colour polymorphism in reef corals: Multi-copy genes extend the adaptation/acclimatization potential to variable light environments. Mol Ecol. doi: 10.1111/mec.13041
The genomic framework that enables corals to adjust to unfavourable conditions is crucial for coral reef survival in a rapidly changing climate. We have explored the striking intraspecific variability in the expression of coral pigments from the green fluorescent protein (GFP) family to elucidate the genomic basis for the plasticity of stress responses among reef corals. We show that multi-copy genes can greatly increase the dynamic range over which corals can modulate transcript levels in response to the light environment. Using the red fluorescent protein amilFP597 in the coral Acropora millepora as a model, we demonstrate that its expression increases with light intensity, but both the minimal and maximal gene transcript levels vary markedly among colour morphs. The pigment concentration in the tissue of different morphs is strongly correlated with the number of gene copies with a particular promoter type. These findings indicate that colour polymorphism in reef corals can be caused by the environmentally regulated expression of multi-copy genes. High-level expression of amilFP597 is correlated with reduced photodamage of zooxanthellae under acute light stress, supporting a photoprotective function of this pigment. The cluster of light-regulated pigment genes can enable corals to invest either in expensive high-level pigmentation, offering benefits under light stress, or to rely on low tissue pigment concentrations and use the conserved resources for other purposes, which is preferable in less light-exposed environments. The genomic framework described here allows corals to pursue different strategies to succeed in habitats with highly variable light stress levels. In summary, our results suggest that the intraspecific plasticity of reef corals’ stress responses is larger than previously thought.