“Solar salamander” crosses symbiotic boundaries

Scientists have recently discovered the first example of a plant living symbiotically within a vertebrate, broadening our understanding of what sorts of symbioses are possible.

The spotted salamander Ambystoma maculatum is known to engage in a symbiotic relationship with the algae Oophila amblystomatis during embryonic development. Developing salamander eggs are covered in an algae-filled slime. The embryos produce nitrogen-rich waste, which the algae use for nutrition. In turn, the algae increase the amount of oxygen available to A. maculatum through photosynthesis.

This mutualistic relationship has long been understood. Recently, transmission electron microscopy, a high resolution microscopic imaging technology, has revealed O. amblystomatis cells residing within salamander embryos. Time-lapse videos of embryonic development reveal a fluorescent green flash occurring within an embryo as its nervous system forms.

There is evidence that these symbiotic algae may be maternally derived- they are the same algae that occur in female oviducts, where the embryo-encompassing jelly sacs form.

This unique symbiosis may provide insight into the early formation of eukaryotic cells. Chloroplasts, the principle photosynthetic organelle in plant cells, are thought to be the product of an ancient symbiosis between a free-living photosynthetic prokaryote and a larger proto-cell.

Credit:  Petherick, A. A solar salamander. Nature News. Nature. 30 July 2010.

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4 thoughts on ““Solar salamander” crosses symbiotic boundaries”

  1. Holy crap, that’s awesome. I’d heard about algae-jellyfish symbiosis, but this is definitely another level of cool. Why do you think this kind of symbiosis happens so infrequently in nature?

    1. Well the main reason scientists had believed a plant-vertebrate symbiosis to be impossible is because of vertebrate immune systems. Generally, the immune system of a salamander would know to recognize and attack such a foreign cell. The fact that the symbiosis can exist suggests a long-standing coevolutionary relationship, and probably some pretty strong selective pressure on the salamander population to repress its immune response toward these particular algae cells.

    1. not an animal, a very simple/early skeleton version of a basic eukaryotic cell. not much more than a lipid membrane and some nutrients inside. I’ll look into early cell evolution a bit more and get back to you!

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