Iron starvation and culture age activate metacaspases and programmed cell death in the marine diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana

Kay D. Bidle, Sara J. Bender

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113 Scopus citations


In the modern ocean, phytoplankton maintain extremely high primary production/biomass ratios, indicating that they bloom, die, and are replaced weekly. The molecular mechanisms regulating cellular mortality and turnover are largely unknown, even though they effectively short-circuit carbon export to the deep ocean and channel primary productivity to microbial food webs. Here, we present morphological, biochemical, and molecular evidence of caspase-mediated, autocatalytic programmed cell death (PCD) in the diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana in response to iron starvation. Transmission electron microscopy revealed internal degradation of nuclear, chloroplastic, and mitochondrial organelles, all while the plasma membranes remained intact. Cellular degradation was concomitant with dramatic decreases in photosynthetic efficiency, externalization of phosphatidylserine, and significantly elevated caspase-specific activity, with the addition of a broad-spectrum caspase inhibitor rescuing cells from death. A search of the T. pseudonana genome identified six distinct putative metacaspases containing a conserved caspase domain structure. Quantitative reverse transcription-PCR and Western blot analysis revealed differential gene and protein expression of T. pseudonana metacaspases, some of which correlated with physiological stress and caspase activity. Taken together with the recent discovery of the metacaspase-mediated viral infection of phytoplankton (K. D. Bidle, L. Haramaty, J. Barcelos-Ramos, and P. G. Falkowski, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 104:6049-6054, 2007), our findings reveal a key role for metacaspases in the turnover of phytoplankton biomass in the oceans. Furthermore, given that Fe is required for photosynthetic electron transfer and is chronically limiting in a variety of oceanic systems, including high-nutrient low-chlorophyll regions, our findings provide a potential ecological context for PCD in these unicellular photoautotrophs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)223-236
Number of pages14
JournalEukaryotic Cell
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Microbiology
  • Molecular Biology


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