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The epibiotic life of the cosmopolitan diatom Fragilariopsis doliolus on heterotrophic ciliates in the open ocean

Flora J. Vincent, Sébastien Colin, Sarah Romac, Eleonora Scalco, Lucie Bittner, Yonara Garcia, Rubens M. Lopes, John R. Dolan, Adriana Zingone, Colomban de Vargas & Chris Bowler.


Diatoms are a diverse and ecologically important group of phytoplankton. Although most species are considered free living, several are known to interact with other organisms within the plankton. Detailed imaging and molecular characterization of any such partnership is, however, limited, and an appraisal of the large-scale distribution and ecology of such consortia was never attempted. Here, observation of Tara Oceans samples from the Benguela Current led to the detection of an epibiotic association between a pennate diatom and a tintinnid ciliate. We identified the diatom as Fragilariopsis doliolus that possesses a unique feature to form barrel-shaped chains, associated with seven different genera of tintinnids including five previously undescribed associations. The organisms were commonly found together in the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean basins, and live observations of the interaction have been recorded for the first time. By combining confocal and scanning electron microscopy of individual consortia with the sequencing of high-resolution molecular markers, we analyzed their distribution in the global ocean, revealing morpho-genetically distinct tintinnid haplotypes and biogeographically structured diatom haplotypes. The diatom was among the most abundant in the global ocean. We show that the consortia were particularly prevalent in nutrient-replete conditions, rich in potential predators. These observations support the hypothesis of a mutualistic symbiosis, wherein diatoms acquire increased motility and tintinnids benefit from silicification through increased protection, and highlight that such associations may be more prevalent than currently appreciated.

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The ISME Journal (2018). doi:10.1038/s41396-017-0029-1