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Viral-like particles are associated with endosymbiont pathology in Florida corals affected by stony coral tissue loss disease

October 27, 2021

Stony coral tissue loss disease (SCTLD) was first documented in 2014 near the Port of Miami, Florida, and has since spread north and south along Florida's Coral Reef, killing large numbers of more than 20 species of coral and leading to the functional extinction of at least one species, Dendrogyra cylindrus. SCTLD is assumed to be caused by bacteria based on presence of different molecular assemblages of bacteria in lesioned compared to apparently healthy tissues, its apparent spread among colonies, and cessation of spread of lesions in individual colonies treated with antibiotics. However, light microscopic examination of tissues of corals affected with SCTLD have not shown bacteria associated with tissue death. Rather, microscopy shows dead and dying coral cells and symbiotic dinoflagellates (endosymbionts) suggesting a breakdown of host cell and endosymbionts symbiosis. It is unclear whether host cells die first leading to death of endosymbionts or vice versa. Based on microscopy, hypotheses as to possible causes of SCTLD include infectious agents not visible at the light microscopy level or toxicosis, perhaps originating from endosymbionts. To clarify this, we examined corals affected with SCTLD and apparently healthy corals using transmission electron microscopy. Endosymbionts in SCTLD-affected and apparently healthy corals consistently had varying degrees of pathology associated with elongated particles compatible in morphology with filamentous positive single-stranded RNA viruses of plants (anisometric viral-like particles-AVLP). There was apparent progression from early to late replication of AVLP in the cytoplasm of endosymbionts adjacent to or at times within chloroplasts, with morphologic changes in chloroplasts consistent with those seen in plant cells infected by viruses. Coral host cell pathology appeared limited to massive proliferation and lysis of mucus cells. Based on these findings, we hypothesize that SCTLD is a viral disease of endosymbionts leading to coral host death. Efforts to confirm the presence of a virus associated with SCTLD through other means should be a priority. These include showing the presence of a virus through molecular assays such as deep sequencing, attempts to grow this virus in the laboratory through culture of endosymbionts, localization of virus in tissue sections using immunohistochemistry or in-situ hybridization, and experimental infection of known-virus-negative corals to replicate disease at the gross and microscopic level.

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