The coral symbiont Candidatus Aquarickettsia is variably abundant in threatened Caribbean acroporids and transmitted horizontally

Baker et al. (2021).
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AbstractThe aquatic symbiont “Candidatus Aquarickettsia rohweri” infects a diversity of non-bilaterian metazoan phyla. In the threatened coral Acropora cervicornis, Aquarickettsia proliferates in response to increased nutrient exposure, resulting in suppressed growth and increased disease susceptibility and mortality. This study evaluated the extent, as well as the ecology and evolution of Aquarickettsia infecting the Caribbean corals: Ac. cervicornis and Ac. palmata and their hybrid (‘Ac. prolifera’). The bacterial parasite Aquarickettsia was found in all acroporids, with host and sampling location impacting infection magnitude. Phylogenomic and genome-wide single nucleotide variant analysis found Aquarickettsia clustering by region, not by coral taxon. Fixation analysis suggested within coral colonies, Aquarickettsia are genetically isolated to the extent that reinfection is unlikely. Relative to other Rickettsiales, Aquarickettsia is undergoing positive selection, with Florida populations experiencing greater positive selection relative to the other Caribbean locations. This may be due to Aquarickettsia response to increased nutrient stress in Florida, as indicated by greater in situ replication rates in these corals. Aquarickettsia did not significantly codiversify with either coral animal nor algal symbiont, and qPCR analysis of gametes and juveniles from susceptible coral genotypes indicated absence in early life stages. Thus, despite being an obligate parasite, Aquarickettsia must be horizontally transmitted via coral mucocytes, an unidentified secondary host, or a yet unexplored environmentally mediated mechanism. Importantly, the prevalence of Aquarickettsia in Ac. cervicornis and high abundance in Florida populations suggests that disease mitigation efforts in the US and Caribbean should focus on preventing early infection via horizontal transmission.
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