Photosymbiosis in Past and Present Reefs

  • Lipps J
  • Stanley G
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Reef organisms are well known for engaging in photosymbiosis in which a heterotrophic protist or animal host partners with one or more kinds of photosynthetic microbes. This relationship provides metabolic advantages in nutrition and rapid calcification, often leading to secretion of massive skeletons in the host. In turn the symbiont receives protection, physical stability in the photic zone and direct access to the sun’s energy. On an evolutionary scale, this relationship provided strong selective pressures for producing the algal-host relationship and has occurred multiple times in geological history. Today, different kinds of algae (dinoflagellates, diatoms, chlorophytes, rhodophytes, and cyanobacteria) inhabit various hosts (foraminifera, corals, mollusks) in modern reefs, and multiple phylogenetically separate algae may have also inhabited phylogenetically distinct ancient animals and protists. The modern dinoflagellate photosymbiont Symbiodinium occurs in a wide variety of unrelated host organisms from protists to mollusks. Molecular data indicate this genus first evolved either after the end-Cretaceous mass extinction 65 my ago or in the Early Eocene some 55 my ago. Encysted dinoflagellates related to Symbiodinium have been traced to the Triassic, and photosymbiosis may have been involved in even earlier reef associations. In all fossils, however, the identity of ancient photosymbionts is difficult to establish because they rarely, if ever, fossilize. Nevertheless, indirect evidence indicates that photosymbiotic ecosystems existed at least as far back as the Cambrian. Inferential lines of evidence, including large colony size, massive skeletons, unusual or complex morphology, the biogeographic distribution of possible hosts and skeletal geochemistry are all consistent with active photosynthesis. In the following pages, we develop the hypothesis that photosymbiosis best explains both the successes and failures of reefs through geologic time. We then review the evidence that suggests photosymbiosis in reef organisms played significant roles through geologic time in both the evolution and extinction of organisms and the reefs they constructed.




Lipps, J. H., & Stanley, G. D. (2016). Photosymbiosis in Past and Present Reefs (pp. 47–68).

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