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Part of what makes the marine algae so fascinating to me is their life cycles. I'm intrigued by organisms that do things differently from us. And to be honest, from the perspective of someone who studies invertebrates and their life cycles, we humans are rather boring: we're born into in one body, reproduce (maybe), and then die, all in the same body. Ulva, on the other hand, follows the typical plant example and has a life cycle that includes alternation of generations.

Without going into too much detail, let's just say that Ulva has two generations within a single life cycle, one called a sporophyte and the other called a gametophyte. The difference between the sporophyte and gametophyte is the number of chromosome sets found in the cells of the respective generations: sporophytes have two sets of chromosomes per cell, a condition which we describe as being diploid (2n), while gametophytes are haploid (1n) and have only one set of chromosomes per cell. The diagram below lays it out nicely. Note that the gametophyte in the diagram is white, while the sporophyte is green.

Alternation_of_generations_simpler.svgThe little white circles in the diagram above are the reproductive cells. These cells are produced by either the gametophyte (in the case of gametes) or the sporophyte (in the case of spores).

Now, determining if what you're looking at is a sporophyte or gametophyte can be easy or difficult, depending on whether your species is isomorphic ('same form') or heteromorphic ('other' or 'different form'). Unfortunately for us, Ulva happens to be isomorphic, which means that the sporophyte and gametophyte are for the most part morphologically indistinguishable. However, if you knew what kind of reproductive cells a particular generation produces, you could deduce whether that generation is a sporophyte or a gametophyte, right? So, is there any way to determine whether a 2.5 µm cell is a spore or a gamete?

Yes, there is! In the group of algae that includes Ulva the spores are quadriflagellate, which is just a fancy way of saying that each one bears four flagella. The gametes are biflagellate, having (you guessed it) two flagella. Now it's just a matter of counting flagella on these tiny reproductive cells released by the specimen of Ulva in my bowl.

And voilà!

Biflagellated gametes of Ulva sp., 11 June 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Biflagellated gametes of Ulva sp., 11 June 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

It's clear that these cells have only two flagella, right? This means that they are gametes, not spores, and the thallus that produced them was the gametophyte!

Pretty dang nifty, isn't it?

I was making my last run through the wet lab today, about to head off to forage for lunch before a meeting elsewhere, when I saw this in one of my bowls:

Specimen of Ulva sp. spawning, 11 June 2015. © Allison J. Gong
Specimen of Ulva sp. spawning, 11 June 2015.
© Allison J. Gong

This is one of my feeding treatments for the juvenile urchins. The sheet of green stuff is Ulva sp., a green alga several species of which grow locally in the intertidal. You also see it in harbors and estuaries. This particular bit was growing ferally in one of the large outdoor tanks in an area of the marine lab called the tank farm.

You can see that the algal body (called a thallus) has a fairly distinct edge, except for the parts that the urchins have munched through. Can you also see the cloudy pale green water that runs sort of horizontally across the middle third of the bowl? That's the stuff that caught my eye. After glancing at the clock I figured I had just enough time to take a quick peek under the scope, and if I really didn't care about eating lunch I could even snap a few pictures and still make it to my meeting on time. Anyone who knows me personally understands that I organize my life around food and the next time I get to eat. The fact that I was willing to forego lunch to look at this green spooge should tell you how exciting this was.

(It turns out that a few minutes later the person I was supposed to meet with e-mailed me and asked to postpone our meeting until next week. Yes! This means actual quality time with the microscope and the spooge.)

Here's what a spawning green alga looks like:

That undulating column on the left side is a stream of reproductive cells being released by the thallus. And yes, those are my little urchins chowing down. They like eating Ulva much better than the coralline rocks they'd been subsisting on until recently.

Under the compound scope at 400X magnification, the reproductive cells look like this:

The tiny little cells zooming around are about 2.5 µm long. The way they swim suggests that they have flagella. Do they look familiar?

They should. They look a lot your typical flagellated animal sperms! I don't think it's a coincidence that my first thought upon seeing the green stuff in the bowl was "Spooge!"

But here's where it gets tricky. For algae, looking and acting like sperm doesn't mean that something is sperm. More on that in the next post.

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