Characterizing the "fungal shunt": Parasitic fungi on diatoms affect carbon flow and bacterial communities in aquatic microbial food webs

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Jun 8;118(23):e2102225118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2102225118.


Microbial interactions in aquatic environments profoundly affect global biogeochemical cycles, but the role of microparasites has been largely overlooked. Using a model pathosystem, we studied hitherto cryptic interactions between microparasitic fungi (chytrid Rhizophydiales), their diatom host Asterionella, and cell-associated and free-living bacteria. We analyzed the effect of fungal infections on microbial abundances, bacterial taxonomy, cell-to-cell carbon transfer, and cell-specific nitrate-based growth using microscopy (e.g., fluorescence in situ hybridization), 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing, and secondary ion mass spectrometry. Bacterial abundances were 2 to 4 times higher on individual fungal-infected diatoms compared to healthy diatoms, particularly involving Burkholderiales. Furthermore, taxonomic compositions of both diatom-associated and free-living bacteria were significantly different between noninfected and fungal-infected cocultures. The fungal microparasite, including diatom-associated sporangia and free-swimming zoospores, derived ∼100% of their carbon content from the diatom. By comparison, transfer efficiencies of photosynthetic carbon were lower to diatom-associated bacteria (67 to 98%), with a high cell-to-cell variability, and even lower to free-living bacteria (32%). Likewise, nitrate-based growth for the diatom and fungi was synchronized and faster than for diatom-associated and free-living bacteria. In a natural lacustrine system, where infection prevalence reached 54%, we calculated that 20% of the total diatom-derived photosynthetic carbon was shunted to the parasitic fungi, which can be grazed by zooplankton, thereby accelerating carbon transfer to higher trophic levels and bypassing the microbial loop. The herein termed "fungal shunt" can thus significantly modify the fate of photosynthetic carbon and the nature of phytoplankton-bacteria interactions, with implications for diverse pelagic food webs and global biogeochemical cycles.

Keywords: carbon fluxes; eukaryotic microparasites; phytoplankton–fungi–bacteria interactions.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Burkholderiales / metabolism
  • Carbon / metabolism*
  • Chytridiomycota / physiology*
  • Diatoms* / metabolism
  • Diatoms* / parasitology
  • Food Chain*
  • Microbial Consortia*
  • Phytoplankton* / metabolism
  • Phytoplankton* / parasitology


  • Carbon

Associated data

  • figshare/10.6084/m9.figshare.14614155