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

Research paper by R. Hardeland

Indexed on: 01 Aug '93Published on: 01 Aug '93Published in: Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences


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.