Coral reefs are in alarming decline due to climate emergency, pollution and other man-made disturbances. The numerous ecosystem services derived from coral reefs are underpinned by the growth and physical complexity of reef-forming corals. Our knowledge of their fundamental biology is limited by available technology. We need a better understanding of larval settlement and development, skeletogenesis, interactions with pathogens and symbionts, and how this biology interacts with environmental factors such as light exposure, temperature, and ocean acidification. We here focus on a fast-growing key coloniser, Acropora muricata. To enable dynamic imaging of the photosensitive organism at different scales, we developed light-sheet illumination for fluorescence microscopy of small coral colonies. Our approach reveals live polyps in previously unseen detail. An imaging range for Acropora muricata with no measurable photodamage is defined based upon polyp expansion, coral tissue reaction, and photobleaching. We quantify polyp retraction as a photosensitive behavioural response and show sparse zooxanthellar expulsion and coral tissue rupture at higher intensities of blue light. The simple and flexible technique enables non-invasive continuous dynamic imaging of highly photosensitive organisms with sizes between 1 mm3 and 5 cm3, up to eight hours, at high temporal resolution, on a scale from multiple polyps down to cellular resolution. This live imaging tool opens a new window into the dynamics of reef-building corals.
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