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NADPH-dependent extracellular superoxide production is vital to photophysiology in the marine diatom Thalassiosira oceanica

Distribution of putative homologs of T. oceanica GR in representative phytoplankton genomes and the global ocean.
TitleNADPH-dependent extracellular superoxide production is vital to photophysiology in the marine diatom Thalassiosira oceanica
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsDiaz JM, Plummer S, Hansel CM, Andeer PF, Saito MA, McIlvin MR
Date Published2019/08

Superoxide and other reactive oxygen species (ROS) are commonly regarded as harmful progenitors of biological stress and death, but this view has been changing. Indeed, many phytoplankton actively generate extracellular superoxide under ideal growth conditions for reasons that are mysterious. Results from this study suggest that extracellular superoxide production by the marine diatom Thalassiosira oceanica may promote photosynthetic health by modulating the oxidation state of the cellular NADP+/NADPH pool. The key enzyme implicated in this process is present in other representative marine phytoplankton and global ocean metagenomes. Overall, these findings transform the perceived role of superoxide in the health and functioning of phytoplankton and present implications for redox balance, biogeochemistry, and ecology in the future ocean.Reactive oxygen species (ROS) like superoxide drive rapid transformations of carbon and metals in aquatic systems and play dynamic roles in biological health, signaling, and defense across a diversity of cell types. In phytoplankton, however, the ecophysiological role(s) of extracellular superoxide production has remained elusive. Here, the mechanism and function of extracellular superoxide production by the marine diatom Thalassiosira oceanica are described. Extracellular superoxide production in T. oceanica exudates was coupled to the oxidation of NADPH. A putative NADPH-oxidizing flavoenzyme with predicted transmembrane domains and high sequence similarity to glutathione reductase (GR) was implicated in this process. GR was also linked to extracellular superoxide production by whole cells via quenching by the flavoenzyme inhibitor diphenylene iodonium (DPI) and oxidized glutathione, the preferred electron acceptor of GR. Extracellular superoxide production followed a typical photosynthesis-irradiance curve and increased by 30% above the saturation irradiance of photosynthesis, while DPI significantly impaired the efficiency of photosystem II under a wide range of light levels. Together, these results suggest that extracellular superoxide production is a byproduct of a transplasma membrane electron transport system that serves to balance the cellular redox state through the recycling of photosynthetic NADPH. This photoprotective function may be widespread, consistent with the presence of putative homologs to T. oceanica GR in other representative marine phytoplankton and ocean metagenomes. Given predicted climate-driven shifts in global surface ocean light regimes and phytoplankton community-level photoacclimation, these results provide implications for future ocean redox balance, ecological functioning, and coupled biogeochemical transformations of carbon and metals.


Batch cultures of T. oceanica were grown with replete initial nutrient concentrations under optimal light conditions, and whole cells were analyzed for net extracellular superoxide production by a flow-through chemiluminescence approach described previously. Results revealed that extracellular superoxide production rates were highest in exponential growth phase. As observed in other phytoplankton, this decline of net extracellular superoxide production with increasing age challenges the perception of superoxide as a stress-response molecule, given the continual drawdown of nutrients and the accumulation of cellular stress that occurs over time in batch cultures. These results therefore suggest that extracellular superoxide production may be a constitutive, or even beneficial physiological process in T. oceanica.

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