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Crustaceans Discovered 'Pollinating' Seaweeds in Scientific First

Pollination is the trademark of flowering plants, with animal pollinators such as bees and birds sustaining the world's food supplies.  But new research raises the possibility that animal-assisted pollination may have emerged in the sea, long before plants moved ashore.

The study, conducted by research groups based in France and Chile, is the first to document a seaweed species that depends on small marine crustaceans bespeckled in pollen-like spores to reproduce.

Since the red algae Gracilaria gracilis evolved long before land plants appeared, the researchers say their study shows animal-assisted pollination could have arisen some 650 million years ago in the oceans once a suitable pollinator appeared.

On land in seed-bearing flowering plants and gymnosperms, male reproductive cells, or gametes, take flight in the form of pollen grains, which are carried on wind, through water, or aback insects, to hopefully land upon a female counterpart somewhere far afield.

Scientists then discovered that mosses (a type of rootless, non-flowering plant classified as bryophytes) and some fungi also use animals and insects to facilitate reproduction, upending what they knew about animal-mediated pollination.

Though often debated, researchers thought it had originated in concert with terrestrial plants around 140 million years ago – or at least during the Mesozoic, which stretches back some 252 million years.

Only a few years ago, scientists discovered foraging marine invertebrates carrying seagrass sperm, throwing out to sea the long-standing theory that the oceans were devoid of pollinators.

Now, this new study describes how small crustaceans called isopods, Idotea balthica, help fertilize a species of red seaweed, G. gracilis, that evolved around 1 billion years ago, long before the 500 million years ago when land-plants appeared.

A type of photosynthesizing algae, seaweeds are only very distantly related to so-called true plants.

G. gracilis also differs from most other seaweeds in that their male gametes have no flagellum to propel them through water, left adrift in the ocean – unless they can snag a ridge on a passing critter, as this new work suggests they often do.

In a series of experiments researchers showed how the small marine isopods, which forage along strands of male G. gracilis, inadvertently collect the seaweed's male gametes (spermatia) as they do, transferring them to female plants.

Fertilization success was about 20 times higher in the presence of I. balthica than without the critters, the team found.

The origins of plants using animal pollinators also remain wide open, considering the researchers only inferred this based on the evolutionary history of the animals involved.

Pollinators of the sea: A discovery of animal-mediated fertilization in seaweed

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