The idea that mass coal bleaching is caused by bacteria bleaching as opposed to temperature stress has been quite a contentious issue over the past decade. Despite the fact that massive amounts of evidence that have accumulated that support the idea that thermal stress has driven the mass episodes of coral bleaching (pigment loss associated with the dissociation of the symbiosis between coral and their dinoflagellates) over the past 30 years, some oxygen has been given to the alternative idea that mass coral bleaching is triggered by the presence of bacteria from the genus Vibrio.The idea that bacteria were involved in triggering coral bleaching originated from work done on the temperate coral Oculina patagonica from the Mediterranean sea (an invading species from the Atlantic coast of South America) seemed to suggest that the annual coral bleaching was due to a bacterial infection from a putative pathogen, Vibrio shiloi.
This discussion focuses on recent work done by my laboratory and which was published in the Nature journal ISME (download here) and which suggests that bacteria are not responsible for triggering mass coral bleaching (in O. patagonica or anything else). We are interested in your thoughts and hope that you will comment in the hope of resolving debate over this issue for once and for all.
The Bacterial Bleaching Hypothesis is based on a series of eloquent microbiological investigations conducted by Eugene Rosenberg and his group revealed the intra-cellular penetration, multiplication and subsequent cellular lysis of zooxanthellae by V.shiloi resulted in the annual bleaching of O.patagonica in temperatures above 28ºC. Since then, the bacterial bleaching hypothesis has been extrapolated as an explanation for global mass coral bleaching, and more recently, the coral ‘probiotic hypothesis’ (link). To some (including Eugene Rosenberg), the workplace emphasis onto bacteria rather than climate change as the cause for mass coral bleaching – the implications for the future of coral reefs would be highly significant if Rosenberg were correct.