Bacterial marginolactones trigger formation of algal gloeocapsoids, protective aggregates on the verge of multicellularity.
Photosynthetic microorganisms including the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii are essential to terrestrial habitats as they start the carbon cycle by conversion of CO2 to energy-rich organic carbohydrates. Terrestrial habitats are densely populated, and hence, microbial interactions mediated by natural products are inevitable. We previously discovered such an interaction between Streptomyces iranensis releasing the marginolactone azalomycin F in the presence of C. reinhardtii Whether the alga senses and reacts to azalomycin F remained unknown. Here, we report that sublethal concentrations of azalomycin F trigger the formation of a protective multicellular structure by C. reinhardtii, which we named gloeocapsoid. Gloeocapsoids contain several cells which share multiple cell membranes and cell walls and are surrounded by a spacious matrix consisting of acidic polysaccharides. After azalomycin F removal, gloeocapsoid aggregates readily disassemble, and single cells are released. The presence of marginolactone biosynthesis gene clusters in numerous streptomycetes, their ubiquity in soil, and our observation that other marginolactones such as desertomycin A and monazomycin also trigger the formation of gloeocapsoids suggests a cross-kingdom competition with ecological relevance. Furthermore, gloeocapsoids allow for the survival of C. reinhardtii at alkaline pH and otherwise lethal concentrations of azalomycin F. Their structure and polysaccharide matrix may be ancestral to the complex mucilage formed by multicellular members of the Chlamydomonadales such as Eudorina and Volvox Our finding suggests that multicellularity may have evolved to endure the presence of harmful competing bacteria. Additionally, it underlines the importance of natural products as microbial cues, which initiate interesting ecological scenarios of attack and counter defense.