Corals rely on symbiotic relationships with algae to survive. But how can they keep the algae population under control? A team of researchers investigated the abilities of sea anemones, which are close relatives of corals, and how they can control the algal population found in their tissue.
Both corals and anemones host photosynthetic algae, which can convert the energy released by the sun into chemical energy. An alga will share some of the sugars produced by it with the anemone or coral host in exchange for other valuable nutrients, including carbon dioxide, phosphorus, nitrogen, or sulfur.
Scientists have been puzzled by the mechanisms linked to the relationship, which is vital for both corals and anemones. When algal populations disappear during bleaching events, corals and anemones will lose access to sustenance and may not survive.
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The team of researchers learned that anemones could control the algal population by limiting the amount of nitrogen that is shared. During the study, it was observed that populations of the symbiotic alga Breviolum minutum hosted by the anemone Exaiptasia pallida, which managed to reach high densities, featured higher levels of cellular products associated with nitrogen limitation.
As the population of algae within the host tissues continues to rise, they will deliver more sugars to the anemone. Anemones will harness the carbon backbones of specific molecules to retain and recycle ammonium waste that is rich in nitrogen. This mechanism will help the anemone to grow regularly while also limiting the amount of nitrogen that can be consumed by the algae.
It is now known that the dynamics of nutrient transfer can be influenced by the size of the algal population, a fact that could play an essential role in understanding how the host can control algal populations. Further research is already underway, and more data can be found in a study that was published in a scientific journal.