Abstract Background The coral-Symbiodiniaceae symbiosis is fundamental for the coral reef ecosystem. Corals provide various inorganic nutrients to their algal symbionts in exchange for the photosynthates to meet their metabolic demands. When becoming symbionts, Symbiodiniaceae cells show a reduced proliferation rate and a different life history. While it is generally believed that the animal hosts play critical roles in regulating these processes, far less is known about the molecular underpinnings that allow the corals to induce the changes in their symbionts. Results We tested symbiont cell proliferation and life stage changes in vitro in response to different nutrient-limiting conditions to determine the key nutrients and to compare the respective symbiont transcriptomic profiles to cells in hospite. We then examined the effects of nutrient repletion on symbiont proliferation in coral hosts and quantified life stage transitions in vitro using time-lapse confocal imaging. Here, we show that symbionts in hospite share gene expression and pathway activation profiles with free-living cells under nitrogen-limited conditions, strongly suggesting that symbiont proliferation in symbiosis is limited by nitrogen availability. Conclusions We demonstrate that nitrogen limitation not only suppresses cell proliferation but also life stage transition to maintain symbionts in the immobile coccoid stage. Nutrient repletion experiments in corals further confirmed that nitrogen availability is the major factor limiting symbiont density in hospite. Our study emphasizes the importance of nitrogen in coral-algae interactions and, more importantly, sheds light on the crucial role of nitrogen in symbiont life history regulation.
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