Some ‘friendly’ bacteria backstab their algal pals. Now we know why

By | February 8, 2023

Science News reports:

The photosynthesizing plankton Emiliania huxleyi has a dramatic relationship with its bacterial frenemies. These duplicitous bugs help E. huxleyi in exchange for nutrients until it becomes more convenient to murder and eat their hosts. Now, scientists have figured out how these treacherous bacteria decide to turn from friend to foe.

One species of these bacteria appears to keep tabs on health-related chemicals produced by E. huxleyi, researchers report January 24 in eLife. The bacteria maintain their friendly facade until their hosts age and weaken, striking as soon as the vulnerable algae can’t afford to keep bribing them with nutrients. The finding could help explain how massive algal blooms come to an end.

The bacteria is “first establishing what we call the ‘first handshake,’” says marine microbiologist Assaf Vardi of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. “Then it will shift into a pathogen.”

E. huxleyi’s partnership with these bacteria, which belong to a group called Roseobacter, might be best described as a love-hate relationship. The single-celled alga can’t produce the B vitamins it needs on its own, so it offers up nutrients to lure in Roseobacter that can. The trade is win-win — at least until the bacteria decide they’d be better off slaying and devouring their algal hosts than sticking around in peaceful coexistence. [Continue reading…]

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