The threat posed to coral reefs by changes in seawater pH and carbonate chemistry (ocean acidification) raises the need for a better mechanistic understanding of physiological processes linked to coral calcification. Current models of coral calcification argue that corals elevate extracellular pH under their calcifying tissue relative to seawater to promote skeleton formation, but pH measurements taken from the calcifying tissue of living, intact corals have not been achieved to date. We performed live tissue imaging of the reef coral Stylophora pistillata to determine extracellular pH under the calcifying tissue and intracellular pH in calicoblastic cells. We worked with actively calcifying corals under flowing seawater and show that extracellular pH (pHe) under the calicoblastic epithelium is elevated by approximately 0.5 and approximately 0.2 pH units relative to the surrounding seawater in light and dark conditions respectively. By contrast, the intracellular pH (pHi) of the calicoblastic epithelium remains stable in the light and dark. Estimates of aragonite saturation states derived from our data indicate the elevation in subcalicoblastic pHe favour calcification and may thus be a critical step in the calcification process. However, the observed close association of the calicoblastic epithelium with the underlying crystals suggests that the calicoblastic cells influence the growth of the coral skeleton by other processes in addition to pHe modification. The procedure used in the current study provides a novel, tangible approach for future investigations into these processes and the impact of environmental change on the cellular mechanisms underpinning coral calcification.
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