Thiotrophic bacterial symbiont induces polyphenism in giant ciliate host Zoothamnium niveum

Sci Rep. 2019 Oct 21;9(1):15081. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-51511-3.


Evolutionary theory predicts potential shifts between cooperative and uncooperative behaviour under fluctuating environmental conditions. This leads to unstable benefits to the partners and restricts the evolution of dependence. High dependence is usually found in those hosts in which vertically transmitted symbionts provide nutrients reliably. Here we study host dependence in the marine, giant colonial ciliate Zoothamnium niveum and its vertically transmitted, nutritional, thiotrophic symbiont from an unstable environment of degrading wood. Previously, we have shown that sulphidic conditions lead to high host fitness and oxic conditions to low fitness, but the fate of the symbiont has not been studied. We combine several experimental approaches to provide evidence for a sulphide-tolerant host with striking polyphenism involving two discrete morphs, a symbiotic and an aposymbiotic one. The two differ significantly in colony growth form and fitness. This polyphenism is triggered by chemical conditions and elicited by the symbiont's presence on the dispersing swarmer. We provide evidence of a single aposymbiotic morph found in nature. We propose that despite a high fitness loss when aposymbiotic, the ciliate has retained a facultative life style and may use the option to live without its symbiont to overcome spatial and temporal shortage of sulphide in nature.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / drug effects
  • Bacteria / metabolism*
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Ciliophora / drug effects
  • Ciliophora / growth & development
  • Ciliophora / microbiology*
  • Ciliophora / ultrastructure
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions*
  • Phylogeny
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / genetics
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 18S / genetics
  • Sulfides / pharmacology*
  • Symbiosis* / drug effects


  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 18S
  • Sulfides