Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Metabolites exuded by primary producers comprise a significant fraction of marine dissolved organic matter, a poorly characterized, heterogenous mixture that dictates microbial metabolism and biogeochemical cycling. We present a foundational untargeted molecular analysis of exudates released by coral reef primary producers using liquid chromatography–tandem mass spectrometry to examine compounds produced by two coral species and three types of algae (macroalgae, turfing microalgae, and crustose coralline algae [CCA]) from Moorea, French Polynesia. Of 10,568 distinct ion features recovered from reef and mesocosm waters, 1,667 were exuded by producers; the majority (86%) were organism specific, reflecting a clear divide between coral and algal exometabolomes. These data allowed us to examine two tenets of coral reef ecology at the molecular level. First, stoichiometric analyses show a significantly reduced nominal carbon oxidation state of algal exometabolites than coral exometabolites, illustrating one ecological mechanism by which algal phase shifts engender fundamental changes in the biogeochemistry of reef biomes. Second, coral and algal exometabolomes were differentially enriched in organic macronutrients, revealing a mechanism for reef nutrient recycling. Coral exometabolomes were enriched in diverse sources of nitrogen and phosphorus, including tyrosine derivatives, oleoyltaurines, and acyl carnitines. Exometabolites of CCA and turf algae were significantly enriched in nitrogen with distinct signals from polyketide macrolactams and alkaloids, respectively. Macroalgal exometabolomes were dominated by nonnitrogenous compounds, including diverse prenol lipids and steroids. This study provides molecular-level insights into biogeochemical cycling on coral reefs and illustrates how changing benthic cover on reefs influences reef water chemistry with implications for microbial metabolism.