Single-cell marine predator's unique survival mechanisms revealed

February 8, 2011
Oxyrrhis marina has evolved extreme survival mechanisms, including acquiring a gene from its prey to convert light into energy. (Credit: Susana Breglia)

(PhysOrg.com) -- University of British Columbia researchers have uncovered the unique survival mechanisms of a marine organism that may be tiny, but in some ways has surpassed sharks in its predatory efficiency.

Published today in the journal Nature Communications, the research team's portrait of the microscopic dinoflagellate Oxyrrhis marina reveals a predator so efficient that it has even acquired a gene from its prey.

"It's an interesting case of Lateral , or the movement of between distantly related species," says Patrick Keeling, a UBC botany professor and one of the study's authors.

"Our study shows that Oxyrrhis marina has picked up a gene commonly used by for . Oxyrrhis probably got this gene by eating the bacteria, but the really interesting part is that the gene produces a called rhodopsin, which is a that can make energy from light."

Humans possess similar proteins in our eyes, called opsin, that enable vision in low-light conditions, but cannot produce energy.

"It is very much a case of 'you are what you eat,' because Oxyrrhis marina has so much rhodopsin in its system that it has assumed the protein's signature pink colour," says Keeling. "Our hypothesis is that it is using the rhodopsin to harvest energy from light – as bacteria often do – but we think that it also uses the energy to help digest its prey, some of which were the original supplier of the gene. It is a really neat mix of metabolic strategies."

Oxyrrhis marina is part of a family of marine plankton that also includes the organisms responsible for harmful red tides. It is common in shallow waters such as tide pools around the world, including along the British Columbia coast. It has evolved extreme survival mechanisms, including the ones described in the UBC study. Oxyrrhis marina can cannibalize its own species when no other prey is available.

"It definitely deserves to be called a predator – it can feed on cells almost as big as itself," says Keeling, director of the Centre for Microbial Diversity and Evolution and a member of Beaty Biodiversity Research Centre at UBC. "It is also extremely tough to kill it."

Explore further: Genomic 'haircut' makes world's tiniest genome even smaller: research

Related Stories

Rhodopsin phototrophy promotes bacterial survival

April 27, 2010

Bacteria in the ocean can harvest light energy from sunlight to promote survival thanks to a unique photoprotein. This novel finding by a team of scientists in Sweden and Spain is to be published next week in the online, ...

Beginning to see the light

September 29, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists have detailed the active form of a protein which they hope will enhance our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of vision, and advance drug design.

Study first to show evolution's impact on ecosystems

April 1, 2009

Scientists have come to agree that different environments impact the evolution of new species. Now experiments conducted at the University of British Columbia are showing for the first time that the reverse is also true.

Recommended for you

Knowledge gap on the origin of sex

May 26, 2017

There are significant gaps in our knowledge on the evolution of sex, according to a research review on sex chromosomes from Lund University in Sweden. Even after more than a century of study, researchers do not know enough ...

The high cost of communication among social bees

May 26, 2017

(Phys.org)—Eusocial insects are predominantly dependent on chemosensory communication to coordinate social organization and define group membership. As the social complexity of a species increases, individual members require ...

Why communication is vital—even among plants and funghi

May 26, 2017

Plant scientists at the University of Cambridge have found a plant protein indispensable for communication early in the formation of symbiosis - the mutually beneficial relationship between plants and fungi. Symbiosis significantly ...

Darwin was right: Females prefer sex with good listeners

May 26, 2017

Almost 150 years after Charles Darwin first proposed a little-known prediction from his theory of sexual selection, researchers have found that male moths with larger antennae are better at detecting female signals.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.