The devil lies in the detail …

Our latest ring test* slide took us on a vicarious journey to the beautiful River Don in Aberdeenshire.  Maybe because I have been doing this job for so long, but the quality of the landscape was clear to me as I peered through my microscope 500 kilometres away: the range of diatoms that I could see would not have thrived anywhere with more than the lightest touch from humankind.

One of the clues for me lay in some of the smallest diatoms on the slide.   It took some discussion amongst my fellow experts, but we eventually came up with a list of five different species of Achnanthidium (all illustrated below) which, together, constituted about a third of all the diatoms on the slide (admittedly, because they are small, they constitute rather less than a third of the total volume of diatoms, but that is another story ….).   The mere presence of several Achnanthidium species is, in my experience, usually a sign of high habitat quality (see “Baffled by the benthos (2)”) but unravelling the identities of the different species with a light microscope is challenging.

Achnanthidium-minutissimum-Medwin_WaterAchnanthidium minutissimum from Medwin Water, Scotland. Photographs from the Diatom Flora of Britain and Ireland by Ingrid Jüttner.  Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100thof a millimetre). 

Achnanthidium_pyrenaicum_Towie

Achnanthidium pyrenaicum from the River Don, Towie, Aberdeenshire.  Photographs by Lydia King.  Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100thof a millimetre). 

The genus Achnanthidium is a good example of the delicate co-existence between “identification” and “taxonomy” in the world of diatoms.   Individuals from this genus are usually small so anyone using a light microscope for routine analyses will be working right at the optical limits of their equipment whilst anyone with a serious interest in taxonomy will depend upon a scanning electron microscope for the insights needed for critical differentiation between species.

This divergence between the working methods of “identifiers” and “taxonomists” means that it is rarely possible to name every individual of Achnanthidium with complete confidence.  The ones that present clearly in valve view (i.e. face-up) can mostly be assigned to a species based on features we can see with a light microscope, but it is not always straightforward for those seen in girdle view (i.e. on their side) or which are partly obscured by other diatoms or extraneous matter on the slide.   In this example from the River Don, we also noticed that smaller individuals of A. gracillimum lost their characteristic rostrate/sub-capitate ends and were, as a result, not easy to differentiate from A. pyrenaicum.

Achnanthidium_gracillium_Towie_Water

Achnanthidium gracillimum from the River Don, Towie, Aberdeenshire.  Photographs by Lydia King.   Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100thof a millimetre). 

What continues to mystify me is why so many closely-related species can live in such close proximity. It is Achnanthidium that prompt this question here, but other genera display similar tendencies (see “When is a diatom like a London bus?”).  And this immediately generates another question: why are more people not asking this question of diatoms and, indeed, microscopic algae in general?

The answer to that question falls into two parts. The first is that understanding the precise ecological requirements of microscopic algae is not a trivial task, and assumes that you are able to get several closely-related species to live in culture (which, itself, assumes you know the precise ecological requirements of each … you see the problem?).   There is, as a result, a tendency to avoid experimental approaches and, instead, look for how species associate with likely environmental variables in datasets collected from sites exhibiting strong gradients of conditions.   However, this assumes that the forces that drive the differentiation between species work at the same scale at which we sample (see “Our patchwork heritage …” for more on this).

Underlying this, however, is a deeply-held belief, dating back at least forty years, that the niches of freshwater diatoms are determined primarily by the chemistry of the overlying water.   This is a dogma that has served us well when using diatoms for understanding the effects of environmental pollution but which is, ultimately, a limitation when trying to explain why we found five separate Achnanthidium species in a single sample, all exposed to the same stream water.

Achnanthidium_lineare_&_affine_Towie

Achnanthidium lineare (first three images from the left) and A. affine (two images on the right) from River Don, Towie, Aberdeenshire.  Photographs by Lydia King.  Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100thof a millimetre). 

I will go one step further: this dogma is so deeply held that referees rarely challenge the weak evidence that is produced to demonstrate different responses to environmental conditions between closely-related species.  There are certainly variations in environmental preferences between Achnanthidium species, but these are best expressed as trends rather than unambiguous differences and I have never seen such trends subject to rigorous statistical testing.

I blame better microscopes: greater magnification and resolution has revealed such a baffling amount of diversity that all the energy of bright diatomists is absorbed unravelling this rather than trying to explain what it all means (see “The meaning of … nothing”).  If we were bumbling along with the quality of equipment that Hustedt depended upon, then maybe we would be cheerfully lumping all these forms together and focussing on functional ecology instead.   Maybe.

* see “Reaching a half century” for more about the ring test scheme

Spheres of influence

Back to Moss Dub for this post because Chris Carter has sent me some stunning images of the filamentous desmid Desmidium grevillei that I talked about in my earlier post.   I mentioned that it is surrounded by a mucilaginous sheath, which was just apparent in my brightfield image.   Chris has added Indian ink to the wet mount.  The ink forms a dense suspension in the water but is repelled by the mucilage around the desmid cells, resulting in a much better impression of the extent of the sheath around the cell than is otherwise possible.

Desmidium-grevillei_CCarter_#1_Sept19

Desmidium grevillei from Moss Dub, photographed by Chris Carter using Indian ink to highlight the mucilage sheath around the cells. 

Indian ink is a negative stain, which means that it is the background, rather than the specimen itself, which takes up the colour.   This, in turn, alters the passage of light through the sample and appears to improve the contrast of the final image.   Chris’ images of the apical view show this well, and also illustrates the complicated three-dimensional arrangement of the chloroplasts within each semi-cell.   His photographs also show the pores through which the mucilage is secreted.

The curious thing about this negative stain is that, whilst it appears to emphasis a halo of nothingness around the Desmidium filament, it is actually drawing our attention to something important.   In his presidential address to the British Phycological Society in 1981 A.D. Boney referred to mucilage as “the ubiquitous algal attribute” and goes on to list the many functions that the slimes produced by a wide range of algal groups may perform.  Not all will apply to our Desmidium but Boney does use desmids as examples of some of the roles slime may play: it can be, for example, a buoyancy aid, keeping the desmids in the well-lit regions of a lake or pond and it can protect cells against desiccation if a pond or lake dries out.  It may also play a role in helping desmids adhere to their substrates and there is also evidence that mucilage layers may help to protect algae from toxins.

Desmidium-grevillei_apical_view_CCarter_Sept19

Apical view (at four different focal planes) of Desmidium grevillei from Moss Dub, photographed by Chris Carter, September 2019.

But that’s only part of the story.   There is two-way traffic across the membranes of algal cells, with essential nutrients moving into the cell but, in some cases, enzymes moving in the opposite direction.  If nutrients are in short supply then these enzymes can help the cell by breaking down organic molecules in order to release nutrients that can then be absorbed. Those enzymes take energy to manufacture, and the sheath of gunk around the filament means that there is a lower chance of them diffusing away before doing their job (see “Life in the colonies …”).   The same principle applies to sexual reproduction too, with mucilage serving, in some cases, as “sperm traps” or simply as the phycological equivalent of KY Jelly.

It is not just the algae that benefit from this mucilage: the outer layers, especially, can be colonised by bacteria which will also be hoovering up any spare organic molecules for their own benefit with, no doubt, some collateral benefits for the organisms around them.  The connection is probably too tenuous to count as a symbiosis with the desmids but we could think in terms of mutual benefits.

So that “nothing” really is a “something”, and that is before we consider the role of these extracellular compounds in the wider ecosystem.  I mentioned the role of similar compounds in consolidating the fine sediments on coastal mudflats in “In the shadow of the Venerable Bede” to give a flavour of this.   The least prepossessing aspect of the least prepossessing plants can, given time, change landscapes.  That should give us all pause for thought.

Desmidium-grev_apical_pore_CCarater

Close-up of Desmidium grevillei filament with focus on the left-hand cell adjusted to show the apical pores.   Photographed by Chris Carter from material from Moss Dub collected in September 2019.

Reference

Boney, A.D. (1981). Mucilage: the ubiquitous algal attribute.  British Phycological Journal 16: 115-132.

Domozych, D. S., & Domozych, C. R. (2008). Desmids and biofilms of freshwater wetlands: Development and microarchitecture. Microbial Ecology https://doi.org/10.1007/s00248-007-9253-y

Sorentino, C. (1985). Copper resistance in Hormidium fluitans (Gay) Heering (Ulotrichaceae, Chlorophyceae). Phycologia 24: 366-388. https://doi.org/10.2216/i0031-8884-24-3-366.1

 

The little tarn of horrors …

In addition to desmids, we found several other algae in the samples collected from Cogra Moss.  One of these consisted of colonies of cells in mucilaginous masses attached to floating mats of vegetation (which looked like terrestrial grasses).  We decided that these were probably Chrysocapsa epiphytica, the second representative of the Chrysophyta I’ve described in this blog this year (see also “Fade to grey …”).  As is the case for Chromulina, much of what we know about Chrysocapsa epiphytica is down to the patient work of John Lund who first described this species back in 1949.

Chrysocapsa_epiphytica

Colonies of Chrysocapsa epiphytica growing on submerged vegetation at Cogra Moss, Cumbria, September 2019.  Cells are 7.5 – 15 micrometres long and 7.5 – 12 micrometres wide. 

He described the various mucilaginous lobes as “reminiscent of the …. human brain”.  The spherical, oval or ovoid cells form a layer, two to four cells deep, at the surface of the colony.   The cells have the typical yellow-brown colour of chrysophytes and, though it is hard to see the chloroplasts in this photograph, John Lund says that there are usually two, sometimes four, in mature cells.

Its presence in a soft-water lake probably means that it is a species that relies on dissolved carbon dioxide rather than bicarbonate as its raw material for phytosynthesis (see “Concentrating on carbon …” for some background on this).   We know, from laboratory studies, that most chrysophytes rely exclusively on carbon dioxide, and lack the capacity to use bicarbonate.  This confines them to water where the pH is low enough to ensure a supply of carbon dioxide (the chemistry behind this is explained in “Buffers for duffers”. It may also explain why Chromulina lives in surface films rather than submerged in the pond (the locations where we’ve it found are unlikely to have sufficiently low pH).

One extra twist to the story is that many chrysophytes are “mixotrophic”, meaning that they can switch between using photosynthesis as a means of getting the carbon they need to grow from inorganic sources, and “feeding” on other organisms.  Our Chrysocapsa epiphytica, in other words,  has parked itself beside a convenient supermarket of pre-packaged carbon in the form of decaying vegetation and associated bacteria which it then ingests by a process known as “phagotrophy”.

Phagotrophy is, in fact, a very ancient characteristic, insofar as the very first eukaryotic cells were the result of Cyanobacteria-type cells being ingested by larger heterotrophic cells and being retained as on-board “energy farms” rather than digested and treated as one-off vegetarian dinners.   However, the shift to a permanent role for chloroplasts within a eukaryotic cell involved a lot of rewiring of intercellular machinery, and effectively “switching off” the intercellular mechanisms involved in phagotrophy.   Retaining the ability to “feed” on bacteria alongside a capacity for photosynthesis is the cellular equivalent of a hybrid car: there is a lot more to cram under the bonnet.  Flexibility, in other words, comes at a cost.

On the other hand, phagotrophy does not just result in extra carbon for the Chrysocapsa cells in Cogra Moss.   In an oligotrophic tarn such as this, the extra nutrients that are obtained when the bacteria are absorbed will also be a useful boost.   Once again, though, you can see that, in environments where nutrients are more plentiful, the cost to the cell of maintaining the equipment required for phagotrophy outweighs the benefits.

I’m sure that a close inspection of the land around Cogra Moss would have revealed insectivorous plants such as Drosera(sundew) and we also recorded Utricularia minor, an aquatic insectivorous plant, in another tarn we visited whilst desmid-hunting (see “Lessons from School Knott Tarn”).  Chrysocapsa is, in many senses, a microscopic equivalent of these carnivorous plants.   OK, so it has a taste for bacteria rather than flesh but, somewhere out there, there must be a sub-editor in search of a headline …

References

Lund, J.W.G. (1949). New or rare British Chrysophyceae. 1.  New Phytologist48: 453-460.

Maberly, S. C., Ball, L. A., Raven, J. A., & Sültemeyer, D. (2009). Inorganic carbon acquisition by chrysophytes. Journal of Phycology 45: 1052-1061. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1529-8817.2009.00734.x

Raven, J. A. (1997). Phagotrophy in phototrophs. Limnology and Oceanography 42: 198-205. https://doi.org/10.4319/lo.1997.42.1.0198

Saxby-Rouen, K. J., Leadbeater, B. S. C., & Reynolds, C. S. (1997). The growth response of Synura petersenii(Synurophyceae) to photon flux density, temperature, and pH. Phycologia 26: 233-243. https://doi.org/10.2216/i0031-8884-36-3-233.1

Saxby-Rouen, K. J., Leadbeater, B. S. C., & Reynolds, C. S. (1998). The relationship between the growth of Synura petersenii (Synurophyceae) and components of the dissolved inorganic carbon system. Phycologia 37: 467-477.  https://doi.org/10.2216/i0031-8884-37-6-467.1

Terrado, R., Pasulka, A. L., Lie, A. A. Y., Orphan, V. J., Heidelberg, K. B., & Caron, D. A. (2017). Autotrophic and heterotrophic acquisition of carbon and nitrogen by a mixotrophic chrysophyte established through stable isotope analysis. ISME Journal. https://doi.org/10.1038/ismej.2017.68