Ocean microbes team up and cooperate to gather food when it’s scarce

What do phytoplankton do when the pickings are slim? They must continue to capture nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus, or iron – to survive, even when these nutrients have become depleted in the sun light layers of the ocean.

One ingenious solution to this challenge is reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In low-nutrient environments, marine microbes can clump together and hook up with even tinier cells that have vibrating, hairlike appendages (cilia) on their surface. The beating cilia create microcurrents that can pull up to 10 times more nutrients within the microbes’ reach – thereby serving up a meal through cooperative work.

Coscinodiscus wailesii diatom (left image) and with attached Pseudovorticella coscinodisci ciliate epibionts (right image). Streak lines were derived from flows generated by the ciliate epibionts. Kanso et al, PNAS, 2021

Even if the ocean is wildly turbulent, microbes can piggyback into consortia for division of labor, says senior corresponding author John H. Costello of Providence College and the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), Woods Hole, where much of the research was conducted.

For all conditions but the most radically extreme mixing, these microbial cells live in fluid spaces that are smaller than the eddies caused by ocean mixing,” Costello says. “In their world, the surrounding fluid is always viscous and they do not experience turbulent eddies as humans feel them.”

The team used a technology called Particle Image Velocimetry (PIV) to measure the direction and magnitude of fluid flows around a photosynthetic marine diatom, Coscinodiscus wailesii, with and without an attached ciliate “partner,” Pseudovorticella coscinodisci. They found that fluid flows generated by ciliary beating can increase nutrient flux to the diatom’s cell surface 4-10 times greater than fluxes to the diatom alone.

This cooperative solution is one way microbes can cope in low-nutrient environments. Another previously known tactic for individual cells is sinking to greater depths, which creates relative motion between the cell and surrounding water and increases its exposure to higher nutrient concentrations.

“Sinking might work well in low-nutrient conditions where mixing will recirculate the cells back up from the depths to the sunlit layers,” Costello says. “That way, the risk to the diatom of sinking might be countered by the probability of being returned to high-light environments. But in low-mixing conditions, forming consortia with ciliates could be a more favorable solution to low nutrient availability.”

Diatoms are among the most important groups of single-celled photosynthesisers for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Thus, the study helps to illuminate ocean-atmospheric exchanges that have become increasingly important for understanding climate change.

More information and link to paper: Eva A. Kanso, Rubens M. Lopes, J. Rudi Strickler, John O. Dabiri, John H. CostelloProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jul 2021, 118 (29) e2018193118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2018193118

Oceans’ microscopic plants known as diatoms capture carbon dioxide via biophysical pathways

Diatoms are tiny unicellular plants — no bigger than half a millimeter — which inhabit the surface water of the world’s oceans where sunlight penetration is plenty. Despite their modest size, they are one of the world’s most powerful resources for removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. They currently remove, or “fix,” 10-20 billion metric tons of CO2 every year by the process of photosynthesis. But not much is known about which biological mechanisms diatoms use, and whether these processes might become less effective with rising ocean acidity, temperatures, and, in particular, CO2 concentrations. A new study shows that diatoms predominantly use one pathway to concentrate CO2 at the vicinity of carbon fixing enzyme and that this continues to operate even at higher CO2 concentrations.

“We show that marine diatoms are super smart in fixing atmospheric CO2 even at the present-day level of CO2 — and the variability in surface seawater CO2 levels did not impact the gene expression and abundance of the five key enzymes used in carbon fixation,” says the group leader of the study, Dr Haimanti Biswas from the National Institute of Oceanography-CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research), India. “This answers a key question about how marine diatoms may respond to the future increase in atmospheric CO2 levels.”

Centric diatoms

The plant kingdom has evolved a wide range of mechanisms for concentrating CO2 from the air, or water, and transforming it into organic carbon. In this way, plants convert CO2 into glucose and other carbohydrates, which they use as building blocks and energy storage. But these different mechanisms have varied strengths and weaknesses. Somewhat ironically, the only carbon-fixing enzyme, RuBisCO, is notoriously inefficient at fixing CO2 and hence plants need to keep CO2 levels high In the vicinity of this enzyme.

To better understand which mechanism diatoms use to concentrate CO2, Biswas and her collaborators, Drs Chris Bowler and Juan Jose Pierella Karluich from the Institut de Biologie de I’Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris, France, mined a data set from the Tara Oceans research expedition. The international Tara expedition collected marine plankton samples from around the world over several years (2009 to 2013). These included more than 200 metagenomes (which show the abundance of the genes responsible for the five key enzymes) and over 220 metatranscriptomes (showing expression of the genes for the five key enzymes) from diatoms of different size classes.

Biswas and her collaborators were particularly interested in how often the genes of five key carbon-fixing enzymes are present, and whether there were any differences in their abundance and expression levels depending on location and conditions. Across all of the samples measured, one enzyme was roughly ten times more abundant than any of the other enzymes. This enzyme — called carbonic anhydrase — is especially informative because it also confirms that diatoms are actively pumping in dissolved CO2 inside the cell, as opposed to biochemically transforming CO2 first.

The team also observed complex different patterns of the key enzymes’ gene expression, which varied depending on latitude and temperature. The researchers hope to learn more using new datasets from more widely-traveled future expeditions.

“So far, our study indicates that despite variability in CO2 levels, these tiny autotrophs are highly efficient in concentrating CO2 inside the cell,” says Biswas. “That’s the probable reason for their ability to fix nearly one-fifth of the global carbon fixation on earth.”

More information: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpls.2021.657821/full