The Genome of Aiptasia and the Role of MicroRNAs in Cnidarian-Dinoflagellate Endosymbiosis

  • Sebastian Baumgarten

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Coral reefs form marine-biodiversity hotspots of enormous ecological, economic, and aesthetic importance that rely energetically on a functional symbiosis between the coral animal and a photosynthetic alga. The ongoing decline of corals worldwide due to anthropogenic influences heightens the need for an experimentally tractable model system to elucidate the molecular and cellular biology underlying the symbiosis and its susceptibility or resilience to stress. The small sea anemone Aiptasia is such a model organism and the main aims of this dissertation were 1) to assemble and analyze its genome as a foundational resource for research in this area and 2) to investigate the role of miRNAs in modulating gene expression during the onset and maintenance of symbiosis. The genome analysis has revealed numerous features of interest in relation to the symbiotic lifestyle, including the evolution of transposable elements and taxonomically restricted genes, linkage of host and symbiont metabolism pathways, a novel family of putative pattern-recognition receptors that might function in host-microbe interactions and evidence for horizontal gene transfer within the animal-alga pair as well as with the associated prokaryotic microbiome. The new genomic resource was used to annotate the Aiptasia miRNA repertoire to illuminate the role of post-transcriptional regulatory mechanisms in regulating endosymbiosis. Aiptasia encodes a majority of species-specific miRNAs and first evidence is presented that even evolutionary conserved miRNAs are undergoing recent differentiations within the Aiptasia genome. The analysis of miRNA expression between different states of Symbiodinium infection further revealed that species-specific and conserved miRNAs are symbiotically regulated. In order to detect functional miRNA-mRNA interactions and to investigate the downstream effects of such miRNA action, a protocol for cross-linking immunoprecipitations of Argonaute, the central protein of the miRNA-induced silencing complex, was developed. This method identified binding sites of miRNAs on a transcriptome-wide scale and revealed target genes of symbiotically regulated miRNAs that were identified previously to be involved in the symbiosis. In summary, this dissertation provides novel insights into miRNA-mediated post-transcriptional modulation of the host transcriptome and by presenting a critically needed genomic resource, lays the foundation for the continued development of Aiptasia as a model for coral symbiosis.
Date of AwardFeb 2016
Original languageEnglish (US)
Awarding Institution
  • Biological, Environmental Sciences and Engineering
SupervisorChristian Voolstra (Supervisor)


  • Aiptasia
  • Genome
  • Dinoflagellate
  • miRNA
  • Endosymbiosis
  • Gene regulation

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