Algae's protein 'tails' create motion and aid munching

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- When single-celled organisms such as sperm crack their whip-like appendages called flagella, the beating sets them in motion. But in certain colonies of green algae, flagella also boost nutrient uptake, according to surprising new research.

In the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of Arizona and Brown University explain how flagella allow these algae to get the energy they need to multiply and create colonies the critical secret that allowed them to evolve into multicellular organisms.

"This is the first evidence that flagella not only help organisms move, but can help them feed at a rate that allowed them to evolve to a larger size," said Thomas Powers, an assistant professor of engineering at Brown who studies microorganisms in motion. "This is a critical piece of information, since understanding how one-celled life forms evolve into many-celled ones is a fundamental question in biology."

The team studied a group of green algae known as the volvocines, organisms so common they can be found in puddles of rain. Biologists study the group, which runs the gamut from single-celled organisms to teeming colonies, to understand how cells differentiate and multiply. But how did the volvocines jump from solo cells to Volvox, a colony of as many as 50,000 cells?

It's a puzzler of a question, given the size of a Volvox colony and the laws of physics. Bigger organisms need more energy a lot more energy to survive. And Volvox is the largest colony that the volvocines make, a giant ball of flagella-waving body guards protecting a small cluster of reproductive cells. When the radius of the spherical colony increases by a factor of two, the area of the sphere increases by a factor of four. So it follows that the energy demands for Volvox would quadruple, too, as it grows.

Yet microscopic organisms such as volvocines get nutrients through diffusi

Contact: Wendy Lawton
Brown University

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