As intermediaries, some heterotrophic protists can enhance the content of the long chain n-3 essential fatty acids (LCn-3EFAs), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), of low food quality algae for subsequent use at higher trophic levels. However, the mechanisms that produce LCn-3EFAs are presently unknown, although LCn-3EFA production by heterotrophic protists at the phytoplankton–zooplankton interface may potentially affect the nutritional status of the pelagic system. We investigated whether the heterotrophic protists, Oxyrrhis marina and Gyrodinium dominans, produce LCn-3EFAs via elongation and desaturation of dietary LCn-3EFA precursors and/or synthesize LCn-3EFAs de novo by: (1) feeding the two heterotrophic protists with a prey deficient in n-3 fatty acids, (2) incubating them in medium containing 13C-labeled sodium acetate, and (3) feeding the two protists gelatin acacia microspheres (GAMs) containing a deuterium-labeled LCn-3EFA precursor, linolenic acid [18:3(n-3)-d4]. Both O. marina and G. dominans synthesized EPA and DHA when fed the n-3 fatty acid-deficient prey, Perkinsus marinus, a parasitic protozoan. O. marina, but not G. dominans utilized 13C-labeled acetate from the medium to produce uniformly labeled fatty acids, including DHA. Both heterotroph species consumed GAMs containing 18:3(n-3)-d4 and catabolized 18:3(n-3)-d4 to 16:3(n-3)-d4 and 14:3(n-3)-d4, while no 20 or 22 carbon metabolites of 18:3(n-3)-d4 were detected. These results suggest that O. marina and G. dominans do not elongate and desaturate dietary LCn-3EFA precursors to produce LCn-3EFAs, but rather they produce LCn-3EFAs de novo, possibly via a polyketide synthesis pathway.
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This study was supported by OCE, NSF (award #:0525899). The authors are grateful for Jennifer A. Podbesek’s help in culturing the protist and algal cultures. Contribution no. 2939 by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary.
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