Corporate Banner
Satellite Banner
Scientific Community
Become a Member | Sign in
Home>News>This Article

Extracellular Vesicles Produced by Ocean Microbes

Published: Monday, January 13, 2014
Last Updated: Sunday, January 12, 2014
Bookmark and Share
Cyanobacteria produce and release vesicles that can serve as food parcels for marine organisms.

Marine cyanobacteria - tiny ocean plants that produce oxygen and make organic carbon using sunlight and CO2 - are primary engines of Earth’s biogeochemical and nutrient cycles. They nourish other organisms through the provision of oxygen and with their own body mass, which forms the base of the ocean food chain.

Now scientists at MIT have discovered another dimension of the outsized role played by these tiny cells: The cyanobacteria continually produce and release vesicles, spherical packages containing carbon and other nutrients that can serve as food parcels for marine organisms.

The vesicles also contain DNA, likely providing a means of gene transfer within and among communities of similar bacteria, and they may even act as decoys for deflecting viruses.

In a paper published this week in Science, postdoc Steven Biller, Professor Sallie (Penny) Chisholm, and co-authors report the discovery of large numbers of extracellular vesicles associated with the two most abundant types of cyanobacteria, Prochlorococcus and Synechoccocus. The scientists found the vesicles (each about 100 nanometers in diameter) suspended in cultures of the cyanobacteria as well as in seawater samples taken from both the nutrient-rich coastal waters of New England and the nutrient-sparse waters of the Sargasso Sea.

Although extracellular vesicles were discovered in 1967 and have been studied in human-related bacteria, this is the first evidence of their existence in the ocean.

“The finding that vesicles are so abundant in the oceans really expands the context in which we need to understand these structures,” says Biller, first author on the Science paper. “Vesicles are a previously unrecognized and unexplored component of the dissolved organic carbon in marine ecosystems, and they could prove to be an important vehicle for genetic and biogeochemical exchange in the oceans.”

Billions and billions of vesicles
Biller’s metagenomic analysis of the vesicles taken from the seawater revealed DNA from a diverse array of bacteria, suggesting that vesicle production is common to many marine microbes. The researchers estimate the global production of vesicles by Prochlorococcus alone at a billion billion billion per day - representing a notable addition of carbon to the scarce nutrient pool of the open seas.

Lab experiments showed that the vesicles are stable, lasting two weeks or more, and that the organic carbon they contain provides enough nutrients to support the growth of nonphotosynthetic bacteria.

Given the dearth of nutrients in the open ocean, the daily release by an organism of a packet one-sixth the size of its own body is puzzling, Chisholm says. Prochlorococcus has lost the ability to neutralize certain chemicals and depends on nonphotosynthetic bacteria to break down chemicals that would otherwise act as toxins. It’s possible the vesicle “snack packets” help make this relationship mutually beneficial.

“Prochlorococcus is the smallest genome that can make organic carbon from sunlight and carbon dioxide and it’s packaging this carbon and releasing it into the seawater around it,” says Chisholm, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Environmental Studies in MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Biology, who is lead investigator of the study. “There must be an evolutionary advantage to doing this. Our challenge is to figure out what it is.”

Because the vesicles also contain DNA and RNA, the researchers surmise they could play a role in horizontal gene transfer, a means for developing genetic diversity and sharing ecologically useful genes among the Prochlorococcus metapopulation.

Marine decoy
But perhaps the most unusual potential role of the vesicles is as a decoy for predators: Electron microscopy shows phages (viruses that attack bacteria) attached to vesicles. When a phage injects its DNA into the vesicle (making it impossible for the phage to reproduce in a living cell), it renders the phage inactive, according to Biller, who says the vesicles could be acting like chaff released by a fighter jet to divert missile attacks. A phage attached to a vesicle is effectively taken out of the battle, providing a creative means of deterrence.

“Marine cyanobacteria of the genera Prochlorococcus and Synechoccocus are the two most abundant phototrophs,” says biologist David Scanlan, a professor at the University of Warwick who was not involved in this research. “By releasing extracellular vesicles these organisms shed new light on the importance of such particles in the largest ecosystem on Earth - the open ocean - with implications for marine carbon cycling, mechanisms of horizontal gene transfer, and as a defense against phage attack.”

The vesicles first came to Chisholm’s attention in 2008 when Anne Thompson, then a graduate student, noticed little “blebs” on the surface of Prochlorococcus cells while using electron microscopy. Neither she nor Chisholm nor other ocean biologists who saw the photo were able to identify the spheres. But Biller, who joined Chisholm’s lab in 2010 after completing his graduate studies on soil bacteria, recognized them as vesicles, and began the study resulting in the Science paper.

In addition to Biller, Chisholm, and Thompson, other co-authors on the paper are Florence Schubotz and Roger Summons, of MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and Sara Roggensack, a former MIT lab technician who is now a graduate student at Tufts University.

Further Information
Access to this exclusive content is for Technology Networks Premium members only.

Join Technology Networks Premium for free access to:

  • Exclusive articles
  • Presentations from international conferences
  • Over 2,800+ scientific posters on ePosters
  • More than 4,000+ scientific videos on LabTube
  • 35 community eNewsletters

Sign In

Forgotten your details? Click Here
If you are not a member you can join here

*Please note: By logging into you agree to accept the use of cookies. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

Related Content

Drug-Resistance Mechanism in Tumor Cells Unravelled
Targeting the RNA-binding protein that promotes resistance could lead to better cancer therapies.
Friday, October 23, 2015
Quantum Physics Meets Genetic Engineering
Researchers use engineered viruses to provide quantum-based enhancement of energy transport.
Friday, October 16, 2015
Viruses Join Fight Against Harmful Bacteria
Engineered viruses could combat human disease and improve food safety.
Friday, September 25, 2015
Targeting DNA
Protein-based sensor could detect viral infection or kill cancer cells.
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Targeting DNA
Protein-based sensor could detect viral infection or kill cancer cells.
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
Searching Big Data Faster
Theoretical analysis could expand applications of accelerated searching in biology, other fields.
Thursday, August 27, 2015
A Metabolic Master Switch Underlying Human Obesity
Researchers find pathway that controls metabolism by prompting fat cells to store or burn fat.
Friday, August 21, 2015
Identifying a Key Growth Factor in Cell Proliferation
Researchers discover that aspartate is a limiter of cell proliferation.
Friday, July 31, 2015
Firms “Under-invest” in Long-Term Cancer Research
Tweaks to the R&D pipeline could create new drugs and greater social benefit.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
Nanoparticles Can Clean Up Environmental Pollutants
Researchers have found that nanomaterials and UV light can “trap” chemicals for easy removal from soil and water.
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Researchers Develop Genetic Tools to Engineer Common Gut Bacterium
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed genetic parts that can be combined to program the commensal gut bacterium Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron.
Friday, July 10, 2015
Longstanding Problem Put to Rest
Proof that a 40-year-old algorithm for comparing genomes is the best possible will come as a relief to computer scientists.
Thursday, June 11, 2015
Diagnosing Cancer with Help from Bacteria
Engineered probiotics can detect tumors in the liver.
Friday, May 29, 2015
Master Gene Regulator Could Be New Target For Schizophrenia Treatment
Researchers at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have identified a master genetic regulator that could account for faulty brain functions that contribute to schizophrenia.
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Brain Tumor Weakness Identified
Discovery could offer a new target for treatment of glioblastoma.
Thursday, April 09, 2015
Scientific News
New Tech Vastly Improves CRISPR/Cas9 Accuracy
A new CRISPR/Cas9 technology developed by scientists at UMass Medical School is precise enough to surgically edit DNA at nearly any genomic location, while avoiding potentially harmful off-target changes typically seen in standard CRISPR gene editing techniques.
New Class of RNA Tumor Suppressors Identified
Two short, “housekeeping” RNA molecules block cancer growth by binding to an important cancer-associated protein called KRAS. More than a quarter of all human cancers are missing these RNAs.
Biologists Induce Flatworms to Grow Heads and Brains of Other Species
Findings shed light on role of a new kind of epigenetic signaling in evolution, could yield clues for understanding birth defects and regeneration.
Turning up the Tap on Microbes Leads to Better Protein Patenting
Mining millions of proteins could become faster and easier with a new technique that may also transform the enzyme-catalyst industry, according to University of California, Davis, researchers.
Mathematical Model Forecasts the Path of Breast Cancer
Chances of survival depend on which organs breast cancer tumors colonize first.
Exploring the Causes of Cancer
Queen's research to understand the regulation of a cell surface protein involved in cancer.
Ancient Viral Molecules Essential for Human Development
Genetic material from ancient viral infections is critical to human development, according to researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
Tardigrade's Are DNA Master Thieves
Tardigrades, nearly microscopic animals that can survive the harshest of environments, including outer space, hold the record for the animal that has the most foreign DNA.
The Secret Behind the Power of Bacterial Sex
Migration between different communities of bacteria is the key to the type of gene transfer that can lead to the spread of traits such as antibiotic resistance, according to researchers at Oxford University.
Farming’s in Their DNA
Ancient genomes reveal natural selection in action.
Skyscraper Banner

Skyscraper Banner
Go to LabTube
Go to eposters
Access to the latest scientific news
Exclusive articles
Upload and share your posters on ePosters
Latest presentations and webinars
View a library of 1,800+ scientific and medical posters
2,800+ scientific and medical posters
A library of 2,500+ scientific videos on LabTube
4,000+ scientific videos