Most reef-building corals contain photosynthetic cells, called zooxanthellae, that live in their tissues. The corals and these special cells have a mutualistic relationship. The coral provides the zooxanthellae with a protected environment and compounds they need for photosynthesis. In return, the zooxanthellae produce oxygen and help the coral to remove wastes. Most importantly, zooxanthellae supply the coral with glucose, glycerol, and amino acids, which are the products of photosynthesis. The coral uses these products to make proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and produce calcium carbonate. The relationship between the zooxanthellae and coral polyp facilitates a tight recycling of nutrients in nutrient-poor tropical waters. In fact, as much as 90 percent of the organic material photosynthetically produced by the zooxanthellae is transferred to the host coral tissue. This is the driving force behind the growth and productivity of coral reefs.
In addition to providing corals with essential nutrients, zooxanthellae are responsible for the unique and beautiful colors of many stony corals. Sometimes when corals become physically stressed, the polyps expel their zooxanthellae and the colony takes on a stark white appearance. This is commonly described as “coral bleaching”. If the polyps go for too long without zooxanthellae, coral bleaching can result in the coral's death.
Because of their intimate relationship with zooxanthellae, and these cells special ability to photosynthesize, reef-building corals respond to the environment like plants. Reef corals require clear water so that sunlight can reach their zooxanthellae for photosynthesis. For this reason they are generally found only in waters with small amounts of suspended material, or water of low turbidity and low productivity. This leads to an interesting paradox—coral reefs require clear, nutrient-poor water, but they are among the most productive and diverse marine environments.
Zooxanthellae cells provide corals with pigmentation. On the left is a healthy stony coral. On the right is a stony coral that has lost its zooxanthellae cells and has taken on a bleached appearance. If a coral polyp is without zooxanthellae cells for a long period of time, it will most likely die.
Coral polyps, which are animals, and zooxanthellae, specialized cells that live within them, have a mutualistic relationship. Coral polyps produce carbon dioxide and water as byproducts of cellular respiration. The zooxanthellae cells use carbon dioxide and water to carry out photosynthesis. Learn more.