First glimpse of ocean microbe opens floodgates for researchers

22 Nov 2016

Collection of organisms. Image: Diss09/Shutterstock

Once thought of as insignificant, a rare ocean microbe has been propelled into the spotlight as the first glimpse of the organism has been captured, and turned ocean biology on its head.

With much of our planet still unexplored beneath the murky depths of vast amounts of water, a rare ocean microbe known as a diplonemid was considered insignificant enough to not be concerned about.

Yet while its existence was known to researchers, it had never been seen in the wild, or anywhere for that matter.

Now a team of researchers from British Columbia in Canada has revealed that it has photographed our first glimpse of the diplonemid and it turns out it is vastly more important to our ecosystem than we thought.

It is only in recent years that surveys of marine diversity have shown the organisms to not be rare at all, but rather a member of the protozoa group of single-celled organisms in our oceans, not including bacteria and viruses.

Having sailed to a point off the coast of California, where the water is deep yet poor in nutrients, the research team managed to photograph the organisms and used advanced equipment to sequence the genomes of these single-celled organisms.

An image of a diplonemid taken at sea that was isolated for genomic sequencing. Image: Patrick Keeling

An image of a diplonemid taken at sea that was isolated for genomic sequencing. Image: Patrick Keeling

‘It’s like discovering lions after having only seen gazelles’

As it turns out, this analysis showed that diplonemids are a diverse group of species of many different shapes and sizes, and that they hunt both bacteria and larger algae.

Also, it has been found that diplonemids have interesting genomes that are large and full of ‘junk’ DNA called introns that interrupt its genes.

These introns are found in genes of all complex cells, but according to the researchers, the diplonemid introns are special because they appear to spread – similar to how a virus copies its genetic material into other cells when it attacks.

In describing the importance of this find, Patrick Keeling from the University of British Columbia said the photographing and analysis of diplonemids opens whole new doors for researchers.

“It’s like discovering lions after having only seen gazelles, antelopes and zebras for so many years.”

The next step in the team’s research that has been published in Nature Biology, Keeling added, was to find a way to keep these single-cell organisms alive long enough to study them in greater depth.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic