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Open Access Research article

Diverse modes of reproduction in the marine free-living ciliate Glauconema trihymene

Hongan Long* and Rebecca A Zufall

Author Affiliations

Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Houston, Houston TX, 77204-5001 USA

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BMC Microbiology 2010, 10:108  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-10-108

Published: 13 April 2010



Most free-living ciliates reproduce by equal fission or budding during vegetative growth. In certain ciliates, reproduction occurs inside the cyst wall, viz. reproductive cysts, but more complex reproductive strategies have generally been thought to be confined to parasitic or symbiotic species, e.g. Radiophrya spp.


In addition to equal fission, asymmetric binary division and reproductive cysts were discovered in the free-living bacterivorous scuticociliate Glauconema trihymene Thompson, 1966. Asymmetric division is an innate physiological state that can be induced by sufficient food, and the higher the food concentration, the longer the asymmetric division persists. During asymmetric division, nuclear and somatic structures divide with transiently arrested cytokinesis and variable positioning of macronuclei. Phylogenetic analysis, based on the small subunit of ribosomal DNA (SSU rDNA) sequences, showed that the G. trihymene isolate studied here nests with typical scuticociliates and is paraphyletic to both the symbiotic apostome and astome ciliates, some of which also produce progeny by asymmetric division.


The asymmetric division in G. trihymene has no precedent among undisturbed free-living ciliates. The coexistence of multiple modes of reproduction may represent a previously undescribed reproductive strategy for ciliates living on food patches in coastal waters. This may also be indicative of similar reproductive strategies among other polyphenic ciliates, which have not been intensively studied. Asymmetric division provides a special opportunity for studying ciliates' phenotypic plasticity and may also illuminate the origins of multicellularity.