Virginia Key, FL (July 18, 2006) -- While phytoplankton scientists focus their research on some of the smallest organisms in the world, the impacts can be global. This week, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a genomic analysis of the smallest, free-living eukaryote offers insight into its ability to thrive in the world's oceans and evolutionary biology. Known as Ostreococcus tauri, the analyzed phytoplankton has been thought to be not only the smallest eukaryote, but also ancient, dating back 1,500 million years and capable of photosynthesis that helps with carbon cycling. This genomic analysis offers important clues regarding the minimum genome size necessary for an organism to be able to live as a free living cell, perform photosynthesis, impact carbon cycling, and influence the climate.
In biology, organisms are divided into two major groupings: prokaryotes and eukaryotes, with eukaryotes being the more structurally complex. Humans, other animals, plants, fungi, and multi-cellular and complex unicellular microorganisms all fall within the "superkingdom" of eukaryotes.
"This is pretty big news," said Dr. Alexandra Worden, one of the paper's authors and an assistant professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science, who was named a Moore Foundation Young Investigator in Marine Microbiology in 2004. Worden worked with the Osteococcus genome consortium, a european initiative to sequence this important organisms genome. "We have recently found that at times organisms such as Ostreococcus can photosynthetically produce more biomass than cyanobacteria, which are found in much greater numbers. Also, there is pretty good evidence that predators are consuming the carbon that is produced. This is important since these organisms don't sink on their own, so their fate whether destroyed by viruses or consumed by larger organisms dictates how they contribute to the global carbon cycle."