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Predator Interactions Chiefly Determine Where Photosynthesizing Prochlorococcus Organisms Thrive

Prochlorococcus Microbe

Where the microbe Prochlorococcus, pictured in green, lives is not determined primarily by temperature, as previously thought. An MIT study finds that a relationship with bacteria, purple, and a shared predator, orange, actually sets the microbe’s range. Credit: Jose-Luis Olivares, MIT

New findings may help researchers hone predictions for where phytoplankton will migrate with climate change.

Prochlorococcus are the smallest and most abundant photosynthesizing organisms on the planet. A single Prochlorococcus cell is dwarfed by a human red blood cell, yet globally the microbes number in the octillions and are responsible for a large fraction of the world’s oxygen production as they turn sunlight into energy.

Prochlorococcus can be found in the ocean’s warm surface waters, and their population drops off dramatically in regions closer to the poles. Scientists have assumed that, as with many marine species, Prochlorococcus’ range is set by temperature: The colder the waters, the less likely the microbes are to live there.

But

“Temperature itself was not able to explain where we saw these drop-offs,” Follett says.

Follett was also working out an alternate idea related to Prochlorococcus and nutrient supply. As a byproduct of its photosynthesis, the microbe produces carbohydrate — an essential nutrient for heterotrophic bacteria, which are single-celled organisms that do not photosynthesize but live off the organic matter produced by phytoplankton.

“Somewhere along the way, I wondered, what would happen if this food source Prochlorococcus was producing increased? What if we took that knob and spun it?” Follett says.

In other words, how would the balance of Prochlorococcus and bacteria shift if the bacteria’s food increased as a result of, say, an increase in other carbohydrate-producing phytoplankton? The team also wondered: If the bacteria in question were about the same size as Prochlorococcus, the two would likely share a common grazer, or predator. How would the grazer’s population also shift with a change in carbohydrate supply?

“Then we went to the whiteboard and started writing down equations and solving them for various cases, and realized that as soon as you reach an environment where other species add carbohydrates to the mix, bacteria and grazers grow up and annihilate Prochlorococcus,” Dutkiewicz says.

Nutrient shift

To test this idea, the researchers employed simulations of ocean circulation and marine ecosystem interactions. The team ran the MITgcm, a general circulation model that simulates, in this case, the ocean currents and regions of upwelling waters around the world. They overlaid a biogeochemistry model that simulates how nutrients are redistributed in the ocean. To all of this, they linked a complex ecosystem model that simulates the interactions between many different species of bacteria and phytoplankton, including Prochlorococcus.

When they ran the simulations without incorporating a representation of bacteria, they found that Prochlorococcus persisted all the way to the poles, contrary to theory and observations. When they added in the equations outlining the relationship between the microbe, bacteria, and a shared predator, Prochlorococcus’ range shifted away from the poles, matching the observations of the original research cruises.

In particular, the team observed that Prochlorococcus thrived in waters with very low nutrient levels, and where it is the dominant source of food for bacteria. These waters also happen to be warm, and Prochlorococcus and bacteria live in balance, along with their shared predator. But in more nutrient-rich enviroments, such as polar regions, where cold water and nutrients are upwelled from the deep ocean, many more species of phytoplankton can thrive. Bacteria can then feast and grow on more food sources, and in turn feed and grow more of its shared predator. Prochlorococcus, unable to keep up, is quickly decimated.

The results show that a relationship with a shared predator, and not temperature, sets Prochlorococcus’ range. Incorporating this mechanism into models will be crucial in predicting how the microbe — and possibly other marine species — will shift with climate change.

Prochlorococcus is a big harbinger of changes in the global ocean,” Dutkiewicz says. “If its range expands, that’s a canary — a sign that things have changed in the ocean by a great deal.”

“There are reasons to believe its range will expand with a warming world,” Follett adds.” But we have to understand the physical mechanisms that set these ranges. And predictions just based on temperature will not be correct.”

Reference: “Trophic interactions with heterotrophic bacteria limit the range of Prochlorococcus” by Christopher L. Follett, Stephanie Dutkiewicz, François Ribalet, Emily Zakem, David Caron, E. Virginia Armbrust and Michael J. Follows, 4 January 2022, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2110993118

This research was supported in part by the Simons Collaboration on Computational Biogeochemical Modeling of Marine Ecosystems (CBIOMES), and by (function(d, s, id){ var js, fjs = d.getElementsByTagName(s)[0]; if (d.getElementById(id)) return; js = d.createElement(s); js.id = id; js.src = "//connect.facebook.net/en_US/sdk.js#xfbml=1&version=v2.6"; fjs.parentNode.insertBefore(js, fjs); }(document, 'script', 'facebook-jssdk'));

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