Healthy herds in the phytoplankton: the benefit of selective parasitism
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The impact of selective predation of weaker individuals on the general health of prey populations is well-established in animal ecology. Analogous processes have not been considered at microbial scales despite the ubiquity of microbe-microbe interactions, such as parasitism. Here we present insights into the biotic interactions between a widespread marine thraustochytrid and a diatom from the ecologically important genus Chaetoceros. Physiological experiments show the thraustochytrid targets senescent diatom cells in a similar way to selective animal predation on weaker prey individuals. This physiology-selective targeting of 'unhealthy' cells appears to improve the overall health (i.e., increased photosynthetic quantum yield) of the diatom population without impacting density, providing support for 'healthy herd' dynamics in a protist-protist interaction, a phenomenon typically associated with animal predators and their prey. Thus, our study suggests caution against the assumption that protist-protist parasitism is always detrimental to the host population and highlights the complexity of microbial interactions.
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