"We are trying to understand the ecological side in these algae," Driscoll said.
"If you're a single cell, regardless of whether you make a toxin or not, you're just drifting through the water, and everything is drifting with you," Driscoll explained. "Producing toxins only makes sense if the entire population does it. Any given individual cell won't get any benefit from the chemicals it makes because they immediately diffuse away. It's a bit like schooling behavior in fish: A single fish can't confuse a predator; you need everyone else do the same thing." For that reason, he explained, the cheaters should have an immediate advantage over their "honest" peers because they can invest the energy and resources they save into making more offspring.
"Theory tells us cooperation should break down in these circumstances. If you are secreting a toxin and it's beneficial to your species, then everybody gets access to that benefit. In a well-mixed population where there is no group structure, natural selection should favor selfishness, and the cheaters should take over." But for some reason, they don't. An alternative explanation for toxicity becomes clear when toxic cells are observed alongside their competition under a microscope.
"They attack other cells," he said. "Using their two flagella, they swim up to the prey and latch on to it. Sometimes a struggle takes place, and more cells swim up to the scene, surround their victim and release more toxin, and then they eat it."
"These toxins might have evolved less as a means to keep competitors away and more like a rattlesnake venom. The algae might use it to stun or immobilize prey."
Driscoll and his co-workers isolated the toxic and the non-toxic strains side by side from the same water sampl
|Contact: Daniel Stolte |
University of Arizona