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Title: Dinoflagellate  
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Subject: Alveolate, Ciliate, Red tide, Myzozoa, Algal bloom
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Temporal range: 250–0Ma
Triassic or earlier–Present
Ceratium furca
Scientific classification
Domain: Eukarya
Kingdom: Chromalveolata
Superphylum: Alveolata
Phylum: Dinoflagellata
Bütschli 1885 [1880-1889]


The dinoflagellates (Greek δῖνος dinos "whirling" and Latin flagellum "whip, scourge") are a large group of flagellate protists that constitute the phylum Dinoflagellata. Most are marine plankton, but they are common in fresh water habitats as well. Their populations are distributed depending on temperature, salinity, or depth. Many dinoflagellates are known to be photosynthetic, but a large fraction of these are in fact mixotrophic, combining photosynthesis with ingestion of prey (phagotrophy).[1] In terms of number of species, dinoflagellates form one of the largest groups of marine eukaryotes, although this group is substantially smaller than the diatoms.[2] Some species are endosymbionts of marine animals and play an important part in the biology of coral reefs. Other dinoflagellates are colorless predators on other protozoa, and a few forms are parasitic (see for example Oodinium, Pfiesteria). Some dinoflagellates produce resting stages, called dinoflagellate cysts or dinocysts, as part of their life cycles.

Dinoflagellates are considered to be protists, with their own division, Dinoflagellata.[3]

About 1,555 species of free-living marine dinoflagellates are currently described.[4] Another estimate suggests ca. 2,000 living species, of which more than 1,700 are marine (free-living as well as benthic) and about 220 are from freshwater.[5] The latest estimates suggest a total of 2,294 living dinoflagellate species, which includes marine, freshwater and parasitic dinoflagellates.[6]

An algal bloom of dinoflagellates can result in a visible coloration of the water colloquially known as red tide.


In 1753, the first modern dinoflagellates were described by Henry Baker as "Animalcules which cause the Sparkling Light in Sea Water",[7] and named by Otto Friedrich Müller in 1773.[8] The term derives from the Greek word δῖνος (dinos), meaning 'whirling,' and Latin flagellum, a diminutive term for a whip or scourge.

In the 1830s, the German microscopist Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg examined many water and plankton samples and proposed several dinoflagellate genera that are still used today including Peridinium, Prorocentrum and Dinophysis.[9]

These same dinoflagellates were first defined by Otto Bütschli in 1885 as the flagellate order Dinoflagellida.[10] Botanists treated them as a division of algae, named Pyrrophyta or Pyrrhophyta ("fire algae"; Greek pyrr(h)os, fire) after the bioluminescent forms, or Dinophyta. At various times, the cryptomonads, ebriids, and ellobiopsids have been included here, but only the last are now considered close relatives. Dinoflagellates have a known ability to transform from noncyst to cyst-forming strategies, which makes recreating their evolutionary history extremely difficult.


Dinoflagellates are protists which have been classified using both the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN, now renamed as ICN) and the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). Approximately half of living dinoflagellate species are autotrophs possessing chloroplasts and half are non-photosynthesising heterotrophs. It is now widely accepted that the ICN should be used for their classification.

Most (but not all) dinoflagellates have a dinokaryon, described below (see: Life-cycle, below). Dinoflagellates with a dinokaryon are classified under Dinokaryota, while dinoflagellates without a dinokaryon are classified under Syndiniales.

Although classified as [12]

Jakob Schiller (1931–1937) provided a description of all the species, both marine and freshwater, known at that time.[13] Later Alain Sournia (1973, 1978, 1982, 1990, 1993) listed the new taxonomic entries published after Schiller (1931–1937).[14][15][16][17][18] Sournia (1986) gave descriptions and illustrations of the marine genera of dinoflagellates, excluding information at the species level.[19] The latest index is written by Gómez.[6]


English-language taxonomic monographs covering large numbers of species are published for the Gulf of Mexico,[20] the Indian Ocean,[21] the British Isles,[22] the Mediterranean[23] and the North Sea.[24]

The main source for identification of freshwater dinoflagellates is the Süsswasser Flora.[25]

Calcofluor-white can be used to stain thecal plates in armoured dinoflagellates.[26]


The cyst of Peridinium ovatum, showing the ecdysal opening

Dinoflagellates are unicellular and possess two dissimilar flagella arising from the ventral cell side (dinokont flagellation). They have a ribbon-like transverse flagellum with multiple waves that beats to the cell's left, and a more conventional one, the longitudinal flagellum, that beats posteriorly.[27][28][29] The transverse flagellum is a wavy ribbon in which only the outer edge undulates from base to tip, due to the action of the axoneme which runs along it. The axonemal edge has simple hairs that can be of varying length. The flagellar movement produces forward propulsion and also a turning force. The longitudinal flagellum is relatively conventional in appearance, with few or no hairs. It beats with only one or two periods to its wave. The flagella lie in surface grooves: the transverse one in the cingulum and the longitudinal one in the sulcus, although its distal portion projects freely behind the cell. In dinoflagellate species with desmokont flagellation (e.g., Prorocentrum) the two flagella are differentiated as in dinokonts, but they are not associated with grooves.

Dinoflagellates have a complex cell covering called an amphiesma or cortex, composed of a series of membrances, flattened Apicomplexa, and ciliates, collectively referred to as the alveolates.[32]

Dinoflagellate tabulations can be grouped into six "tabulation types": gymnodinoid, suessoid, gonyaulacoidperidinioid, nannoceratopsioid, dinophysioid and prorocentroid.

The Erythropsidium has the smallest known eye.[34]

Some athecate species have an internal skeleton consisting of two star-like siliceous elements that has an unknown function, and can be found as microfossils. Tappan[35] gave a survey of dinoflagellates with internal skeletons. This included the first detailed description of the pentasters in Actiniscus pentasterias, based on scanning electron microscopy. They are placed within the order Gymnodiniales, suborder Actiniscineae.[3]


Most endoparasites, or that remain attached to their prey for longer periods of time, i.e. ectoparasites). They can parasitize animal or protist hosts. Protoodinium, Crepidoodinium, Piscinoodinium and Blastodinium retain their plastids while feeding on their zooplanktonic or fish hosts. In most parasitic dinoflagellates the infective stage resembles a typical motile dinoflagellate cell.

Theca structure and formation

The formation of thecal plates has been studied in detail through ultrastructural studies.[31]


Dinoflagellates can occur in all aquatic environments: marine, brackish, and fresh water, including in snow or ice. They are also common in benthic environments and in sea ice.

Nutritional strategies

There are several nutritional strategies in dinoflagellates: [37]

Food inclusions contain bacteria, bluegreen algae, small dinoflagellates, diatoms, ciliates and other dinoflagellates.[38][39][40][41][42][43][44]

Mechanisms of capture and ingestion in dinoflagellates are quite diverse. Several dinoflagellates, both thecate (e.g. Ceratium hirundinella,;[43] Peridinium globulus,[41]) and nonthecate (e.g. Oxyrrhis marina,[39] Gymnodinium sp.[45] and Kofoidinium spp.[46]), draw prey to the sulcal region of the cell (either via water currents set up by the flagella or via pseudopodial extensions) and ingest the prey through the sulcus. In several Protoperidinium spp., e.g. Protoperidinium conicum, a large feeding veil — a pseudopod called the pallium — is extruded to capture prey which is subsequently digested extracellularly (=pallium-feeding).[47][48] Oblea, Zygabikodinium and Diplopsalis are the only other dinoflagellate genera known to use this particular feeding mechanism [48][49][50]). Katodinium (Gymnodinium) fungiforme, commonly found as a contaminant in algal or ciliate cultures, feeds by attaching to its prey and ingesting prey cytoplasm through an extensible peduncle.[51] The feeding mechanisms of the oceanic dinoflagellates remain unknown, although pseudopodial extensions were observed in Podolampas bipes.[52]

The dinoflagellate nucleus: Dinokaryon

Most dinoflagellates have a peculiar form of nucleus, called a dinokaryon, in which the chromosomes are attached to the nuclear membrane. These lack histones and remain condensed throughout interphase rather than just during mitosis, which is closed and involves a uniquely extranuclear mitotic spindle.[53] This sort of nucleus was once considered to be an intermediate between the nucleoid region of prokaryotes and the true nuclei of eukaryotes, so were termed mesokaryotic, but now are considered advanced rather than primitive traits.

Life cycle

Dinoflagellata life cycle: 1-Binary fission, 2-Sexual reproduction, 3-planozygote, 4-hypnozygote, 5-planomeiocyte

Dinoflagellates have a haplontic life cycle — with the possible exception of Noctiluca and its relatives.[3] The life-cycle usually involves asexual reproduction by means of binary fission, either through desmoschisis or eleuteroschisis. More complex life cycles occur, more particularly with parasitic dinofagellates. Sexual reproduction also occurs (e.g.[54]) and is only known in a small percentage of dinoflagellates.[55] This takes place by fusion of two individuals to form a zygote, which may remain mobile in typical dinoflagellate fashion and is then called a planozygote. This zygote may later form a resting stage or hypnozygote, which are called dinoflagellate cyst or dinocyst. After (or before) germination of the cyst, the hatchling undergoes meiosis to produce new haploid cells.

Harmful algal blooms

Dinoflagellates sometimes bloom in concentrations of more than a million cells per millilitre. Under such circumstances they can produce toxins (generally called dinotoxins) in quantities capable of killing fish and accumulating in filter feeders such as shellfish, which in turn may be passed on to people who eat them. This phenomenon is called a red tide, from the color the bloom imparts to the water. Some colorless dinoflagellates may also form toxic blooms, such as Pfiesteria. Some dinoflagellate blooms are not dangerous. Bluish flickers visible in ocean water at night often come from blooms of bioluminescent dinoflagellates, which emit short flashes of light when disturbed.

Algal bloom (akasio) by Noctiluca spp. in Nagasaki

The same red tide mentioned above is more specifically produced when dinoflagellates are able to reproduce rapidly and copiously on account of the abundant nutrients in the water. Although the resulting red waves are an unusual sight, they contain toxins that not only affect all marine life in the ocean, but the people who consume them, as well.[56] A specific carrier is shellfish. This can introduce both nonfatal and fatal illnesses. One such poison is saxitoxin, a powerful paralytic neurotoxin. Human inputs of phosphate further encourage these red tides, so there is a strong interest in learning more about dinoflagellates, from both medical and economic perspectives. The ecology of harmful algal blooms is extensively studied.[57]


Noctiluca scintillans

At night, water can have an appearance of sparkling light due to the bioluminescence of dinoflagellates.[58][59]

More than 18 genera of dinoflagellates are bioluminescent,[60] and the majority of them emit a blue-green light.[61]

These species contain scintillons, individual cytoplasmic bodies (ca. 0.5 µm in diameter) distributed mainly in the cortical region of the cell, outpockets of the main cell vacuole. They contain dinoflagellate luciferase, the main enzyme involved in dinoflagellate bioluminescence, and luciferin, a chlorophyll-derived tetrapyrrole ring that acts as the substrate to the light-producing reaction. The luminescence occurs as a brief (0.1 sec) blue flash (max 476 nm) when stimulated, usually by mechanical disturbance. Therefore, when mechanically stimulated—by boat, swimming or waves, for example—a blue sparkling light can be seen emanating from the sea surface.[62]

Dinoflagellate bioluminescence is controlled by circadian rhythms and only occurs at night (e.g.,[63]). Luminescent and nonluminescent strains can occur in the same species. The number of scintillans is higher during night than during day, and breaks down during the end of the night, at the time of maximal bioluminescense.[64]

The luciferin-luciferase reaction responsible for the bioluminescence is pH sensitive.[62] When the pH drops, luciferase changes its shape, allowing luciferin, more specifically tetrapyrrole, to bind.[62] Dinoflagellates can use bioluminescence as a defense mechanism. They can startle their predators by their flashing light or they can ward off potential predators by an indirect effect such as the burglar alarm. The bioluminescence attracts attention to the dinoflagellate, and hence to the predator which this makes more vulnerable to predation from higher trophic levels.[62]

Bioluminescent dinoflagellate ecosystem bays are among the rarest and most fragile,[65] with the most famous ones being the Bioluminescent Bay in La Parguera, Lajas, Puerto Rico and Mosquito Bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico, Las cabezas de San Juan Reserva Natural Fajardo, Puerto Rico. There is a bioluminescent lagoon near Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Lipid and sterol production

Dinoflagellates produce characteristic lipids and sterols.[66] One of these sterols is typical of dinoflagellates and is called dinosterol.


Dinoflagellate theca can sink rapidly to the seafloor in marine snow.[67]


One of the most striking features is the large amount of cellular DNA that dinoflagellates contain. Most eukaryotic algae contain on average about 0.54 pg DNA/cell, whereas estimates of dinoflagellate DNA content range from 3–250 pg/cell,[53] corresponding to approximately 3000–215 000 Mb (in comparison, the haploid human genome is 3180 Mb and hexaploid Triticum wheat is 16 000 Mb). It has been suggested that polyploidy or polyteny may account for this large cellular DNA content,[68] but studies of DNA reassociation kinetics do not support this hypothesis.

In addition to their disproportionately large genomes, dinoflagellate nuclei are unique in their morphology, regulation, and composition.

The dinoflagellates share an unusual mitochondrial genome organisation with their relatives, the Apicomplexa.[69] Both groups have very reduced mitochondrial genomes (~6 kilobases in the Apicomplexa). The genes on the dinoflagellate genomes have undergone a number of reorganisations, including massive genome amplification and recombination which have resulted in multiple copies of each gene and gene fragments linked in numerous combinations. Loss of the standard stop codons, trans-splicing of mRNAs for the mRNA of cox3 and extensive RNA editing recoding of most genes has occurred. The reasons for this transformation are unknown.

The DNA of the plastid in the peridinin-containing dinoflagellates is contained in a series of mini circles.[70] Each mini circle contains one or two polypeptide genes. The genes for these polypeptides are chloroplast specific because their homologs from other photosynthetic eukaryotes are exclusively encoded in the chloroplast genome. Within each mini circle there is a distinguishable 'core' region. Genes are always in the same orientation with respect to this core region.

In terms of DNA barcoding, ITS sequences can be used to identify species,[71] where a genetic distance of genetic distance of p≥0.04 can be used to delimit species.[72]

Evolutionary history

Dinoflagellates are mainly represented as fossils by fossil dinocysts, which have a long geological record with lowest occurrences during the mid-Triassic.,[73] whilst geochemical markers suggest a presence to the Early Cambrian.[74]

There is some evidence that dinosteroids in many Paleozoic and Precambrian rocks might be the product of ancestral dinoflagellates (protodinoflagellates).[75][76]

Molecular phylogenetics shows that dinoflagellates are grouped with ciliates and apicomplexans (=Sporozoa) in a well-supported clade, the alveolates. The closest relatives to dinokaryotic dinoflagellates appear to be apicomplexans, Perkinsus, Parvilucifera, syndinians and Oxyrrhis.[77] Molecular phylogenies are similar to phylogenies based on morphology.[78]

The earliest stages of dinoflagellate evolution appear to be dominated by parasitic lineages, such as perkinsids and syndinians (e.g. Amoebophrya and Hematodinium).[79][80][81][82]

Dinoflagellate evolution has been summarized into five principal organizational types: prorocentroid, dinophysoid, gonyaulacoid, peridinioid and gymnodinoid.[83] The transitions of marine species into freshwater have been infrequent events during the diversification of dinoflagellates and in most cases have not occurred recently, possibly as late as the Cretaceous.[84]

Recently, the "living fossil" Dapsilidinium pastielsii was found inhabiting the Indo-Pacific Warm Pool, which served as a refuge for thermophilic dinoflagellates.[85]


See also


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