The Chemical Defense Ecology of Marine Unicellular Plankton: Constraints, Mechanisms, and Impacts

Biol Bull. 2000 Apr;198(2):225-44. doi: 10.2307/1542526.

Abstract

The activities of unicellular microbes dominate the ecology of the marine environment, but the chemical signals that determine behavioral interactions are poorly known. In particular, chemical signals between microbial predators and prey contribute to food selection or avoidance and to defense, factors that probably affect trophic structure and such large-scale features as algal blooms. Using defense as an example, I consider physical constraints on the transmission of chemical information, and strategies and mechanisms that microbes might use to send chemical signals. Chemical signals in a low Re, viscosity-dominated physical environment are transferred by molecular diffusion and laminar advection, and may be perceived at nanomolar levels or lower. Events that occur on small temporal and physical scales in the "near-field" of prey are likely to play a role in cell-cell interactions. On the basis of cost-benefit optimization and the need for rapid activation, I suggest that microbial defense system strategies might be highly dynamic. These strategies include compartmented and activated reactions, utilizing both pulsed release of dissolved signals and contact-activated signals at the cell surface. Bioluminescence and extrusome discharge are two visible manifestations of rapidly activated microbial defenses that may serve as models for other chemical reactions as yet undetected due to the technical problems of measuring transient chemical gradients around single cells. As an example, I detail an algal dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) cleavage reaction that appears to deter protozoan feeding and explore it as a possible model for a rapidly activated, short-range chemical defense system. Although the exploration of chemical interactions among planktonic microbes is in its infancy, ecological models from macroorganisms provide useful hints of the complexity likely to be found.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Appetitive Behavior / physiology
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Biological Factors / physiology*
  • Ecology
  • Ecosystem*
  • Escape Reaction / physiology
  • Food Chain
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological
  • Plankton / physiology*

Substances

  • Biological Factors