Scientists studying the miniature world of single cell organisms in our oceans have discovered a community that could be interacting remotely, sharing new developments in genes and actively fending off attacks from viruses.

Marine cyanobacteria are tiny ocean plants that produce oxygen and make carbon using sunlight and carbon dioxide, a process called photosynthesis. They are the primary engines of life in the Earth’s oceans, accounting for 10% of all the photosynthesis on the globe. MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have found that these vital organisms release small packages called extracellular vesicles into their environment at a rate of 2-5 for each cell cycle.

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The importance of extracellular vesicles (approximately 100nm in diameter, which is 50x smaller than spider silk) in human related bacteria has been known for more than 30 years, with recent research focusing on their role in various diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and pre-eclampsia. Work carried out by scientists at MIT has revealed that these vesicles are also produced by another group of bacteria, marine cyanobacteria.

When samples from two ocean sites were analysed, these small packages were found to contain various substances including DNA and proteins involved in cell communication. The exact roles of the extracellular vesicles are not yet know, but in a recent paper published in Science Steven Biller concluded that the bacteria may be sharing genes with other cell types or even releasing these packages as decoys to divert the attentions of invading viruses.

Steven Biller and his team used a NanoSight LM10HS with a blue laser to measure size and concentration of the extracellular vesicles in the study.

You can read more about the work carried out by Steven Biller and his colleagues here, and listen to an interview with him on the Science Mag podcast.