NYUAD Study Discovers How Some Single-cell Organisms Control Microbiomes

Graphical depiction of the microbiomes surrounding microalgae.

This discovery paves the way for future research into climate change and understanding of evolution.

Press Release

Large swaths of single-celled eukaryotes, non-bacterial single-cell organisms like microalgae, fungi or mold, can control microbiomes (a collection of tiny microbes, mostly bacteria) by secreting unusual small molecules around their cells, maintaining host survival and ecological success, according to a new study by NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Assistant Professor of Biology Shady Amin.

Research in the past decade has shown that most eukaryotes need microbiomes to survive. While we understand how large eukaryotes, like humans, corals and plants, control their microbiomes, scientists do not know how single-celled eukaryotes, like microalgae, do so. 

In humans, microbiomes can influence digestion, physical features, weight, susceptibility to disease, and even mental health. In corals, microbiomes sustain corals and enable them to withstand environmental change. In trees, microbiomes provide essential nutrients that enable forests and agricultural crops to grow. In microalgae, these microbiomes provide vitamins and other nutrients that keep microalgae alive.

In the paper, Diatom Modulation of Select Bacteria Through Use of Two Unique Secondary Metabolites, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS), researchers from NYUAD and other institutions, found that single-celled eukaryotes can control the behavior and growth of microbiomes by promoting beneficial microbes while preventing bad (parasitic) microbes from coming close, enabling scientists to understand how organisms like microalgae control bacteria around them.

The findings will enable scientists to predict how climate change will impact fisheries and atmospheric gas composition because single-celled eukaryotes in the oceans are responsible for a significant fraction of oxygen production on Earth and support the marine food web, including the fish and corals. The findings will also help expand scientists’ understanding of evolution since single-celled eukaryotes constitute a significant fraction of life on earth.

About NYU Abu Dhabi

NYU Abu Dhabi is the first comprehensive liberal arts and research campus in the Middle East to be operated abroad by a major American research university. NYU Abu Dhabi has integrated a highly selective undergraduate curriculum across the disciplines with a world center for advanced research and scholarship. The university enables its students in the sciences, engineering, social sciences, humanities, and arts to succeed in an increasingly interdependent world and advance cooperation and progress on humanity’s shared challenges. NYU Abu Dhabi’s high-achieving students have come from over 115 countries and speak over 115 languages. Together, NYU's campuses in New York, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai form the backbone of a unique global university, giving faculty and students opportunities to experience varied learning environments and immersion in other cultures at one or more of the numerous study-abroad sites NYU maintains on six continents.


“The discovery that a cryptic chemical language enables some single-celled eukaryotes to manipulate bacterial behavior is significant since most eukaryotes on Earth are single-celled and many are essential for our survival."

Assistant Professor of Biology Shady Amin