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Microalgae Digest Themselves

July 13, 2016

Plankton extend their survival by digesting their own internal constituents when nutrients become scarce.


Emiliania huxleyi microalgae Clara Hoppe Sebastian Rokitta Alfred Wgener Institute - Copy

Emiliania huxleyi microalgae. (Clara Hoppe and Sebastian Rokitta/Alfred Wegener Institute)


Plankton survival strategies. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Microalgae form the basis of the food web and produce about half of the oxygen that we breathe. But when the going gets tough, they start eating themselves. This according to a study in Frontiers of Marine Science. Alfred Wegener Institute molecular biologist Sebastian Rokitta and his team grew microalgae in the lab and then starved it of key nutrients.

SEBASTIAN ROKITTA (Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research)

We have observed that the cells stop growing, stop dividing. And then they start degrading the internal organelles of these cells to have less machinery to maintain in a process like digestion.


This helps them survive just a bit longer. The researchers were also surprised to discover that once the cells run out of nutrients, they turn on a gene that, in humans, may be involved in inhibiting cells from dividing too much and becoming cancerous. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Story by Susanne Bard