Abstract In this paper we develop and investigate a dynamic energy budget (DEB) model describing the syntrophic symbiotic relationship between a heterotrophic host and an internal photoautotrophic symbiont. The model specifies the flows of matter and energy among host, symbiont and environment with minimal complexity and uses the concept of synthesizing units to describe smoothly the assimilation of multiple limiting factors, in particular inorganic carbon and nitrogen, and irradiance. The model has two passive regulation mechanisms: the symbiont shares only photosynthate that it cannot use itself, and the host delivers only excess nutrients to the symbiont. With parameter values plausible for scleractinian corals, we show that these two regulation mechanisms suffice to obtain a stable symbiotic relationship under constant ambient conditions, provided those conditions support sustenance of host and symbiont. Furthermore, the symbiont density in the host varies relatively little as a function of ambient food density, inorganic nitrogen and irradiance. This symbiont density tends to increase with light deprivation or nitrogen enrichment, either directly or via food. We also investigate the relative benefit each partner derives from the relationship and conclude that this relationship may shift from mutualism to parasitism as environmental conditions change.