, Volume 49, Issue 8, pp 614–622 | Cite as

The presence and function of melatonin and structurally related indoleamines in a dinoflagellate, and a hypothesis on the evolutionary significance of these tryptophan metabolites in unicellulars

  • R. Hardeland
Multi-Author Reviews Melatonin and the Light-Dark Zeitgeber in Vertebrates, Invertebrates and Unicellular Organisms


The bioluminescent dinoflagellateGonyaulax polyedra contains various indoleamines, in particular, melatonin and 5-methoxytryptamine, as well as enzymes of their biosynthetic pathway. Melatonin exhibits a high-amplitude circadian rhythm characterized by a dramatic increase shortly after the onset of darkness. The maximum of melatonin is followed by a peak of 5-methoxytryptamine. These 5-methoxylated indoleamines seem to be involved in the mediation of the information ‘darkness’.G. polyedra shows a short-day response, which consists in the formation of asexual cysts. Light break experiments demonstrate the photoperiodic nature of this reaction. Cells become sensitive to short days only upon exposure to a lowered temperature (<16°C). Melatonin mimics the short-day effect, but only at decreased temperature. 5-Methoxytryptamine is even a better inducer of cyst formation, acting also at 20°C and in any lighting schedule, including LL. Cyst induction is associated with stimulation of bioluminescence and cytoplasmic acidification. A model on the intracellular pathway of photoperiodic information transduction assumes increased deacetylation of melatonin under cyst-inducing conditions, binding of 5-methoxytryptamine to the membrane of an acidic vacuole, proton transfer to the cytoplasm, and decreased intracellular pH as the stimulus for encystment. Melatonin shows the property of a scavenger of superoxide anions. This reaction, which is efficiently catalyzed by hemin, leads to the formation of a substituted kynuramine (AFMK). Destruction of melatonin by light-induced superoxide anions in the presence of cellular hemin may represent a property which, during evolution, has made this molecule suitable as an indicator of darkness. On the other hand, AFMK, which is formed under illumination, might have become a mediator of the information ‘light’. Photoperiodism inGonyaulax shows surprising parallels to that in mammals, but allows the analysis of this phenomenon at an entirely cellular level.

Key words

Circadian rhythms Gonyaulax indoleamines kynuramines melatonin 5-methoxytryptamine photoperiodism radicals 


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© Birkhäuser Verlag Basel 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • R. Hardeland
    • 1
  1. 1.I. Zoologisches InstitutUniversität GöttingenGöttingen(Germany)

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