Humans do it, chimpanzees do it, cuckoos do it – cheating to score a free ride is a well-documented behavior by many animals, even plants.But microscopically small, single-celled algae? Yes, they do it too, biologists with the University of Arizona’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology have discovered.
“There are cheaters out there that we didn’t know of,” said William Driscoll, lead author of a research report on the topic who studied an environmentally devastating toxic alga that is invading U.S. waters as part of his doctoral research in the lab of Jeremiah Hackett, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.
Driscoll isolated several strains of the species, Prymnesium parvum, and noticed that some grew more quickly and do not produce any of the toxins that protect the algae against competition from other species of algae.
“When those ‘cheaters’ are cultured with their toxic counterparts, they can still benefit from the toxins produced by their cooperative neighbors – they are true ‘free riders,’” Driscoll explained.
The study, published in the journal Evolution, adds to the emerging view that microbes often have active social lives. Future research into the social side of toxic algae could open up new approaches to control or counteract toxic algal blooms, which can pose serious threats to human health and wipe out local fisheries, for example.