Using phylogeny to model cell size evolution in marine and freshwater diatoms

Teofil Nakov, Edward C. Theriot and Andrew J. Alverson

Limnol. Oceanogr., 59(1), 2014, 79-86 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2014.59.01.0079

ABSTRACT: Strategies for optimizing fitness in a dilute, competitive, and changing environment are thought to underlie cell size evolution in phytoplankton. Support for cell size as an adaptive trait comes from observed shifts in cell size distributions in response to environmental cues at geologic time scales and across environmental gradients. Physicochemical differences between marine and freshwater environments are thought to drive diatom cell size evolution in opposite directions, with larger sizes conferring benefits in marine habitats and small sizes in freshwater habitats. We tested this hypothesis in one lineage of diatoms, the Thalassiosirales, which spans marine and freshwater habitats, has a well-supported phylogeny, and whose members are relatively homogenous with respect to cell shape, growth habit, and habitat preference. A comparison of adaptive models for cell size evolution supports the hypothesis for different cell size optima between marine and freshwater habitats. The data are best explained by a model with separate selective regimes for marine and freshwater lineages. However, a scenario of stabilizing selection towards a single global cell size optimum irrespective of habitat cannot be completely discounted. Understanding of the processes that shape cell size evolution in phytoplankton would benefit from models that incorporate phylogeny, intrinsic properties of species (e.g., cell shape, colony formation, and motility), and more specific habitat characterization, as well as genetic and genomic properties of different phytoplankton groups.

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