The expanse of the marine world is almost unfathomable. Discoveries are oft-forgotten about, especially if they are about organisms like algae that do not captivate our fantasy. But, algae is the most important photosynthetic organism on the planet. Algae are the most important photosynthesizing organisms on Earth. They produce more oxygen than all other photosynthetic plants combined. They are the crux of the marine ecosystem and support an abundance of animals.  

A forgotten discovery about algae that stumped scientists in the 1800’s has been revisited and given more clarity. “Yellow cells,” found in the tissue of certain marine creatures raised doubts of a parasitic cellular being occupying the healthy tissue of a living host. 

The team led by biologist Sir Patrick Geddes of Edinburgh University published a paper in the journal Nature in 1882 about these parasitic cells. The team found these cells in temperate marine animals, including sea anemones, corals and jellyfish, and they did not seem to hamper or compete for resources. Although it was concluded that these cells were distinct entities, they were deemed beneficial to the animals in which they lived. 

As a result, Sir Geddes assigned them to a new genus, Philozoon – derived from the Greek phileo, meaning ‘to love as a friend,’ and zoon, meaning ‘anima’.’ Since then, this discovery and the subsequent genus has been forgotten in the history books and never been used since. Until now.

In 2021, a team of researchers have revisited this paper and the mysterious ‘yellow cells’ which have since been declared photosynthetic algae belonging to the same family as Symbiodiniaceae or intracellular dinoflagellates that form a part of many corals, giving them the ability to generate food from the sun.

In a study published in the June 28 issue of the European Journal of Phycology, the team resurrected the genus Philozoon by using modern technologies to thoroughly characterize two of the species of algae that Geddes had investigated, along with six new related ones.

“Patrick Geddes was ahead of his time in recognizing the ecological significance of the ‘yellow cells’ found in some animals were actually distinct entities — micro-algal symbionts — existing inside the animal’s tissues and creating a photosynthetic animal. That was a major revelation! In fact, we now know that microorganisms live in partnership with all multicellular organisms; for example, the bacteria that comprise our human gut microbiomes are essential for our overall health,” said Todd LaJeunesse, professor of biology, Penn State, and lead author of the paper in a Penn State press release. “By emending and reviving the Philozoon genus, we are honoring the work of this natural historian.

Study Findings

The need for further classification of the Philozoon genus prompted the team led by LaJeunesse to use available genetic information to study physical, or morphological, characteristics; ecological traits; and geographic distributions and to define the diversity found within the newly recognized Philozoon genus. 

They obtained animal samples, including from soft and stony corals, jellyfish, and sea anemones — from locations all over the world. They also obtained samples from Italy where Geddes first conducted his original research.

“Because our team comprises scientists from seven countries, we were able to collect all of these samples, and some during the global pandemic,” said LaJeunesse. “This study highlights how the spirit of scientific discovery brings people together, even in times of hardship.”

“The fact that these algae exist in animals from the Mediterranean Sea to New Zealand to Chile reminds us how widespread these symbioses are on Earth,” said LaJeunesse. “Also, since most of the algae in the family Symbiodiniaceae have been thought to be mostly tropical where they are critical to the formation of coral reefs, finding and describing these new species in cold waters highlights the capacity of these symbioses to evolve and live under a broad range of environmental conditions. Life finds a way to persist and proliferate.”

The team documented that at their northernmost and southernmost latitudinal extremes, Philozoon experience water temperatures that may reach winter lows of nearly 40 degrees F and summer highs of close to 90 F.

Significance of Findings

“The abilities of these Philozoons to withstand a wide range of temperatures is likely due to their diversification during the cooler periods of the late Pliocene and most recent Pleistocene epochs,” said LaJeunesse. “This adaptation to a range of temperatures could protect them and the animals with which they associate from some of the effects of climate change, at least in the near term. Similarly, adaptation to high latitude environments may condition Philozoon species to tolerating future increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which could also help make them resilient to some of the effects of ocean acidification.”

He added that careful identification and categorization of these symbiotic algae is essential to understanding the biology and evolution of marine animals that rely on these organisms for their survival.

“The advanced molecular-genetic techniques available to us today have substantially improved our ability to study and understand these microbes,” said Pilar Casado-Amezúa, researcher, HyT Association, Spain. “Our new study lays the groundwork for extensive research on the ecological role of animal-algal mutualisms in temperate marine ecosystems.”

LaJeunesse noted that although there were a handful of other scientists during the late 1800s that were investigating these ‘yellow cells’ it was Geddes who unequivocally recognized the full significance of the evidence before him.

He explained, “In describing the associations between the cells and the host animals, Geddes called them ‘animal lichens’ and eloquently wrote, ‘Such an association is far more complex than that of the fungus and alga in the lichen, and indeed stands unique in the physiology as the highest development, not of parasitism, but of the reciprocity between the animal and vegetable kingdoms.’ Geddes vigorously contended that these algae were symbiotic in nature. Now, more than a century after their discovery, the true identities of these algae are finally being properly characterized.”