Ascidians are ecologically important components of marine ecosystems yet the ascidian microbiota remains largely unexplored beyond a few model species. We used 16S rRNA gene tag pyrosequencing to provide a comprehensive characterization of microbial symbionts in the tunic of 42 Great Barrier Reef ascidian samples representing 25 species. Results revealed high bacterial biodiversity (3 217 unique operational taxonomic units (OTU0.03) from 19 described and 14 candidate phyla) and the widespread occurrence of ammonia-oxidizing Thaumarchaeota in coral reef ascidians (24 of 25 host species). The ascidian microbiota was clearly differentiated from seawater microbial communities and included symbiont lineages shared with other invertebrate hosts as well as unique, ascidian-specific phylotypes. Several rare seawater microbes were markedly enriched (200-700 fold) in the ascidian tunic, suggesting that the rare biosphere of seawater may act as a conduit for horizontal symbiont transfer. However, most OTUs (71%) were rare and specific to single hosts and a significant correlation between host relatedness and symbiont community similarity was detected, indicating a high degree of host-specificity and potential role of vertical transmission in structuring these communities. We hypothesize that the complex ascidian microbiota revealed herein is maintained by the dynamic microenvironments within the ascidian tunic, offering optimal conditions for different metabolic pathways such as ample chemical substrate (ammonia-rich host waste) and physical habitat (high oxygen, low irradiance) for nitrification. Thus, ascidian hosts provide unique and fertile niches for diverse microorganisms and may represent an important and previously unrecognized habitat for nitrite/nitrate regeneration in coral reef ecosystems.
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