Image by Jesse Wagstaff (CC BY 2.0)

Sulfur on the move

High-resolution imaging and chemical analysis reveal how a sulfur-containing compound moves between microbes in seawater.

Sulfur is an essential element for many organisms and environmental processes. Every year, organisms including microalgae produce more than one billion tons of a sulfur-containing compound called DMSP. Some of this DMSP is released into seawater, where it acts as a key nutrient for microscopic organisms and as a foraging cue to attract fish. DMSP is also the precursor of a gas that helps to form clouds.

Despite DMSP’s potential large-scale effects, it is still not clear what role it plays in the organisms that produce it, or how it is transferred from the microalgae that produce it to the bacteria that use it. It is thought that DMSP could potentially protect the cells from sudden changes in the amount of salt in the seawater (salinity) or from other damage, such as oxidative stress — a build-up of harmful chemicals inside cells.

In a controlled setting using artificial seawater, Jean-Baptiste Raina and colleagues used high-resolution imaging and chemical analysis to track the journey of DMSP from microalgae to recipient bacteria. The results show that similar to land plants, algae store DMSP in the compartments that regulate cell pressure and photosynthesis. The presence of DMSP in these locations also supports its proposed role in protecting cells from changes in salinity or oxidative damage.

A future step will be to identify the genes involved in producing DMSP in microalgae. This knowledge could be used to create mutants that are either incapable of producing this molecule or that overproduce it. In combination with the high-resolution imaging techniques described here, this will allow researchers to fully understand the role that DMSP plays in these organisms.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “Subcellular tracking reveals the location of dimethylsulfoniopropionate in microalgae and visualises its uptake by marine bacteria” (April 4, 2017).
eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
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