Vernet Lab

The Ecology of

Polar Phytoplankton

Dr. Maria Vernet
Integrative Oceanography Division
Room 2123, Sverdrup Hall
Phone: (858) 534-5322
Fax: (858) 822-0562

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§ Research Projects » Cell Communication

Cell to cell communication in marine phytoplankton: population density dependent control of cellular processes. (15 July 2011 - 31 December 2012) – Principal Investigator: Maria Vernet, University of California-San Diego Scripps Inst of Oceanography; Collaborators: Dr. Kenia Whitehead, Integral Consulting Inc.; and Dr. Sacha Coesel, University of Washington.
Funded by the National Science Foundation, Biological Oceanography, Grant # OCE-1140042

PROJECT SUMMARY: Recent discoveries have shown that cell-cell communication extends from the intra-species to the inter-kingdom level and play pivotal roles in population-wide biological events such as changes in morphology, metabolic state and population structure. Quorum sensing (QS) is a communication process that allows single cells to cooperatively function as a decentralized network. Studies in prokaryotes and, more recently, fungi have demonstrated that QS regulates the timing of key biological processes such as colony formation, sporulation, morphological changes, pathogenicity and sexual reproduction. In the marine environment, QS has been demonstrated in bacteria however, this level of mutual cooperation has not been considered for phytoplankton populations. In view of the emerging literature on the critical role of cell-cell communication, it is timely to reconsider how we regard marine phytoplankton.

Thus far marine phytoplankton cell-cell interaction studies have primarily focused on chemical signals for competition against other species (e.g. allelopathy), predation deterrence and warning systems for environmental stress. There are several lines of circumstantial evidence to support QS in phytoplankton such as the timing of cell division, density dependent allelopathy and programmed cell death. However, to our knowledge there has been no direct experimentation to determine if phytoplankton can function in a cooperative consortium. Do they have a quorum sensing- type of communication to regulate intra-species processes as well as modulates inter-species interactions? Are recurrent phytoplankton communities established because these species are able to communicate with each member serving a specific role to maintain the population? These are difficult questions to address but have far reaching implications in our understanding of phytoplankton ecology.

We propose to test whether phytoplankton have a QS system by examining the process of autoinduction (a basic tenant for QS) for specific biological events. We will test this by examining two specific areas using phytoplankton ecological and physiological measurements coupled with state of the art bio-informatic and genomic tools:

  • Perform an extensive search for candidate phytoplankton QS-related genes in existing genomic and gene expression databases, based on homology with QS-related genes from other organisms. We will conduct a detailed analysis to definitively map homologs of these QS regulatory pathways in their entirety as well as the few known biosynthetic pathways of QS compounds and transcriptional/translational regulators onto phytoplankton genomes. The results will be included as part of a comparative genomics study on cell-to-cell communication in phytoplankton, and the possible role of any candidate genes in QS will be tested by the experiments detailed below (2).
  • Establish autoinduction of cellular processes in a diatom species using an experimental approach. We will focus on the autoinduction of growth, cell morphology, allelopathy and biofilm formation using axenic cultures using two model diatom species, Phaeodactylum tricornutum Bohlin and Thalassiosira pseudonana.
  • Establish an educational collaboration with the Marine Science Class at La Jolla High School (La Jolla, CA) taught by Mr. David James.

INTELLECTUAL MERIT: The establishment of a QS-like communication system will bring in a new perspective to our views on phytoplankton ecology beyond our current paradigm of bottom-up and top-down controls or competitive interactions. Results from the proposed study will also influence our views on the factors controlling phytoplankton population diversity, as we will now have to consider the role of inter-species communication. Funding through an Eager proposal will provide support for exploratory, high-risk research to obtain a minimum set of data as proof of concept of QS in phytoplankton.

BROADER IMPACTS: We seek to remedy the mismatch in the way biology is taught and practiced by teaching high-school students to examine biological phenomena from a systems perspective. We hope to better prepare them for potential science careers in the information era while fostering their curiosity about their local marine ecosystem