Date: 25 Nov 2006

How does the annelid Alvinella pompejana deal with an extreme hydrothermal environment?

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Abstract

Alvinella pompejana, the so-called Pompeii worm (Desbruyères and Laubier, 1980), is found exclusively in association to high temperature venting, at the surface of hydrothermal chimneys of the East Pacific Rise. The main characteristics of this emblematic species is its tolerance to high temperature but its ability to colonize extremely hot substrates has been the subject of much controversy. In the last decade, new tools allowing in situ and in vivo investigation have been determinant in the understanding of the strategies and adaptations required to colonize such an extremely hot environment. New data relative to the characterization of the animal habitat conditions, on one hand, to the molecular adaptations of this organism and the colonization processes by this species, on the other hand, are now available. Advanced methods and tools, that have fostered the physico-chemical characterization of vent habitats in recent years, are first reviewed. Factors controlling the physico-chemical variability of vent habitats and the threats A. pompejana might effectively face are discussed. The exceptional thermotolerance of this species and the maximum temperature it could sustain are then considered in the light of molecular data relative to its collagen stability. Life history traits as well as biological controls on tube micro-habitat conditions are discussed on the basis of new in situ and in vivo experiments and characterization. Finally, the current knowledge and opened questions related to the molecular adaptations to chemical stresses are briefly stated. The ability of Alvinella pompejana to colonize these substrates is far from being fully understood, but the exceptional properties of its extracellular biopolymers and the behavior of the worm can be now considered as major clues in the colonization process. Alvinella pompejana could thus stand at the limits authorized for its biological machinery in a highly dynamic environment where temperature can readily reach lethal values, but where temperature regulation by the animal itself would prevent exposure to deleterious thermal spikes. The dynamic system associating this pioneer species and its associated microflora might be viewed as a key to the subsequent colonization of these environments by less tolerant species, highlighting A. pompejana as a new type of ecosystem bioengineer.