Biller's metagenomic analysis of the vesicles taken from the seawater revealed DNA from a diverse array of bacteria, suggesting that vesicle production is common to many marine microbes. The researchers estimate the global production of vesicles by Prochlorococcus alone at a billion billion billion per day representing a notable addition of carbon to the scarce nutrient pool of the open seas.
Lab experiments showed that the vesicles are stable, lasting two weeks or more, and that the organic carbon they contain provides enough nutrients to support the growth of nonphotosynthetic bacteria.
Given the dearth of nutrients in the open ocean, the daily release by an organism of a packet one-sixth the size of its own body is puzzling, Chisholm says. Prochlorococcus has lost the ability to neutralize certain chemicals and depends on nonphotosynthetic bacteria to break down chemicals that would otherwise act as toxins. It's possible the vesicle "snack packets" help make this relationship mutually beneficial.
"Prochlorococcus is the smallest genome that can make organic carbon from sunlight and carbon dioxide and it's packaging this carbon and releasing it into the seawater around it," says Chisholm, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in MIT's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Biology, who is lead investigator of the study. "There must be an evolutionary advantage to doing this. Our challenge is to figure out what it is."
Because the vesicles also contain DNA and RNA, the researchers surmise they could play a role in horizontal gene transfer, a means for developing genetic diversity and sharing ecologically useful genes among the Prochlorococcus metapopulation.
But perhaps the most unusual potential role of the vesicles is as a decoy for predators: Electron microscopy shows phages (vi
|Contact: Denise Brehm|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology