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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 187:101-111 (1999)  -  doi:10.3354/meps187101

Colonies of Phaeocystis globosa are protected by a thin but tough skin

Christian E. Hamm1,*, Doris A. Simson2, Rudolf Merkel2, Victor Smetacek1

1Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Postfach 120161, D-27515 Bremerhaven, Germany
2Physics Department (Biophysics group), Technische Universität München, Lehrstuhl für Biophysik, E22, D-85748 Garching, Germany

ABSTRACT: Colonies of the prymnesiophyte marine microalga Phaeocystis globosa were tested for mechanical properties, permeability and biochemical composition using the micropipette aspiration technique. We found that the Phaeocystis colony is enclosed by a thin, yet very strong, semi-permeable skin (pore size between 1 and 4.4 nm diameter) with plastic and to a limited extent also elastic properties. Qualitative staining of single colonies with selective fluorescent dyes indicated absence of lipophilic compounds and chitin but presence of amino groups in the colony skin. Individual cells in the colony appear to be weakly connected with one another and attached to a very dilute, peripheral gel. Suction applied to the colony resulted in volume loss due to expulsion of water and squeezing together of the cells within the skin into a tight pouch; the presence of any firm gelatinous matter within the colony was not discernible. On increasing suction pressure, the skin eventually ruptured and the cells were sucked out of the hole leaving the empty skin behind. We propose that the skin effectively protects the colony cells from grazing and infection by viruses and other pathogens. The unsuspected presence of a skin is probably the main reason why Phaeocystis colonies have reduced mortality relative to solitary cells and form large blooms in many regions of the world's ocean. Our findings indicate that the colonies should be viewed as 'bags of water' rather than 'balls of jelly'.

KEY WORDS: Phytoplankton colony · Phaeocystis · Grazer deterrent · Colony skin · Micropipette aspiration technique

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