Newly discovered microbes band together, 'flip out' | 10/17/2019 | Staff
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When researchers in Nicole King's lab looked through a microscope at the strange organisms they had collected in Curaçao, they saw sheets of cells clustered together in a pattern that resembled skin. That was unusual enough, since these unicellular organisms are normally loners. But then they did something really bizarre: The sheets "flipped" from a shallow cup shape into little ball-like structures and starting swimming around.

"It was fantastic," says King, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at the University of California, Berkeley. No one had ever seen such coordinated movements in these tiny aquatic microbes, known as choanoflagellates. The simple-looking organisms share a common ancestor with animals and may hold clues to how early animals evolved. King's team reports their discovery of the new species, Choanoeca flexa, and a detailed description of its acrobatic maneuvers October 17, 2019, in the journal Science.

King - Organisms - Shape - Building - Blocks

King says it's fascinating that single-celled organisms can act together to change shape. But figuring out how they do it, she adds, ¬and finding molecular building blocks that may also have been used by early multicellular life is even more exciting.

Choanoflagellates inhabit the no-man's-land of protozoans—creatures that are clearly not bacteria, but also don't qualify as complex multicellular life, like plants or animals. Each choanoflagellate cell has a tail-like flagellum surrounded by a ring of tiny hairlike structures, like a sperm cell wearing a fluffy Elizabethan collar.

Team - Curaçao - Part - Program - Laboratory

King and her team were in Curaçao in 2018 as part of a program that brought laboratory scientists into the field to spur new ways to study microscopic life. The team decided to survey Curaçao's choanoflagellates, to try and describe the organisms' diversity on the Caribbean island. "You can find choanoflagellates in any kind of water around the world, pole to pole," King says.

Indeed, the team found choanoflagellates of the usual kinds in...
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