Controlling algal blooms

Diatoms, highly successful photosynthetic plankton responsible for 40% of the net primary production in the oceans, undergo seasonal population explosions called phytoplankton blooms that attract billions of krill, copepods, and other grazing predators. As a defense, wounded diatoms release aldehyde compounds that minimize future diatom casualties by compromising the hatching success of grazers. But these diatom-derived aldehydes can also kill diatoms.

In a new study, Assaf Vardi, Chris Bowler, and their colleagues investigated the possibility that the contrasting effects of aldehydes reflect their role as "infochemicals" that trigger different responses attuned to changing conditions in the diatoms' habitat. The authors found that different concentrations of the aldehyde decadienal produce different diatom responses. At low doses, aldehydes induce resistance to the compound's toxic effects. High aldehyde concentrations, on the other hand, trigger cell death, which may lead to termination of a bloom. Thus, diatom-derived aldehydes regulate the population dynamics of both diatoms and their predators.

Treated cells succumbed to decadienal in a time- and dose-dependent manner, with significant increases in fatalities above a specific threshold. Below this threshold, cells survived, but underwent cell cycle arrest. Monitoring nitric oxide levels with a nitric oxide–sensitive fluorescent dye and time-lapse imaging revealed that both diatom species experienced similar bursts of nitric oxide production about five minutes after decadienal treatment. To clarify nitric oxide's role in cell death, the authors stimulated nitric oxide production without using decadienal by using molecules called nitric oxide donors and found that the number of dying cells increased along with the levels of nitric oxide.

Interestingly, nitric oxide production levels varied among the diatoms. Some cells showed rapid increases in nitric oxide production while their neighbors showed delayed responses, suggesting that the signal to produce nitric oxide was propagating through the diatom population. Healthy cells sensed the level of stressed cells in their midst by detecting the wounded cells' aldehyde-generated signal. Cells pretreated with a lower dose of decadienal before receiving a higher dose had far better survival and growth rates than cells treated with only a single high dose. These results suggest that lower decadienal doses may immunize cells, stimulating resistance to normally lethal aldehyde concentrations. This induced resistance may provide diatoms who escape grazing predators with a better chance of surviving the toxic aldehydes released by the dying diatoms.

Altogether, these results suggest that decadienal-like aldehydes not only affect the reproductive capacity of grazers but also act as infochemicals that monitor stress levels in diatom populations. During phytoplankton blooms, this stress surveillance system can induce resistance or death. The authors propose that this differential response, regulated by the sophisticated use of intracellular calcium and nitric oxide signals, may determine the fitness and succession of phytoplankton communities.


Citation: Vardi A, Formiggini F, Casotti R, de Martino A, Ribalet F, et al. (2006) A stress surveillance system based on calcium and nitric oxide in marine diatoms. PLoS Biol 4(3): e60.

Chris Bowler
CNRS FRE2910/Ecole Normale Superiore
46 rue d'Ulm
Paris, France 75230 Cedex 05
[email protected]

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