Scientists discover the first organism with chlorophyll genes that do not make photosynthesis



Scientists discover the first organism with chlorophyll genes that do not make photosynthesis

Corallicolids are found in 70 percent of corals around the world. Credit: Patrick Keeling Lab, UBC.

For the first time, scientists have found an organism that can produce chlorophyll but does not participate in photosynthesis.

The peculiar organism is called "corallicolid" because it is found in 70 percent of corals around the world and can provide clues on how to protect coral reefs in the future.

"This is the second most abundant coral cohabiter on the planet and has not been seen until now," says Patrick Keeling, a botanist at the University of British Columbia and principal investigator who oversees the study published in Nature. "This organism raises completely new biochemical questions, it looks like a parasite, and it's definitely not photosynthetic, but it still produces chlorophyll."

Chlorophyll is the green pigment found in plants and algae that allows them to absorb the energy of sunlight during photosynthesis.

"Having chlorophyll without photosynthesis is actually very dangerous because chlorophyll is very good at capturing energy, but without photosynthesis to release energy slowly it's like living with a pump in your cells," says Keeling.

The corallicolids live in the gastric cavity of a great variety of corals responsible for the construction of reefs, as well as black corals, fan corals, fungal corals and anemones. They are an apicomplex, part of a vast group of parasites that have a cellular compartment called plastid, which is the part of the cells of plants and algae where photosynthesis takes place. The most famous apicomplex is the parasite responsible for malaria.

Scientists discover the first organism with chlorophyll genes that do not make photosynthesis

The UBC biologist, Waldan Kwong, observes the corals in the laboratory. Credit: Waldan Kwong, Patrick Keeling Lab.

More than a decade ago, photosynthetic algae related to apicomplexes were discovered in healthy corals, indicating that they could have evolved from benign photosynthetic organisms attached to corals before becoming the parasites we know today.

Ecological data showed that coral reefs contain several apicomplexes, but corallicolids, the most common, had not been studied until now. The organism has revealed a new enigma: not only does it have a plastid, but it also contains the four plastid genes used in the production of chlorophyll.

"It's a great scraper," says Waldan Kwong, a postdoctoral researcher at UBC and lead author of the study. "We do not know why these organisms cling to these genes of photosynthesis, a new biology is being produced here, something we have not seen before."

The researchers hope that further research on corallicolids will provide a more sophisticated understanding of coral habitats and allow us to preserve them better.

Scientists discover the first organism with chlorophyll genes that do not make photosynthesis

Researchers examining corals underwater Credit: Varsha Mathur


Change of menu for coral reef warming.


More information:
An apicomplexan that infects corals with chlorophyll biosynthesis genes. Nature (2019). DOI: 10.1038 / s41586-019-1072-z, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1072-z

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