• ciliate;
  • Geminigera cryophila;
  • karyoklepty;
  • light limitation;
  • Mesodinium rubrum;
  • Myrionecta rubra;
  • photoacclimation;
  • quantum yield for growth

Mesodinium rubrum (=Myrionecta rubra), a marine ciliate, acquires plastids, mitochondria, and nuclei from cryptophyte algae. Using a strain of M. rubrum isolated from McMurdo Sound, Antarctica, we investigated the photoacclimation potential of this trophically unique organism at a range of low irradiance levels. The compensation growth irradiance for M. rubrum was 0.5 μmol quanta · m−2 · s−1, and growth rate saturated at ∼20 μmol quanta · m−2 · s−1. The strain displayed trends in photosynthetic efficiency and pigment content characteristic of marine phototrophs. Maximum chl a–specific photosynthetic rates were an order of magnitude slower than temperate strains, while growth rates were half as large, suggesting that a thermal limit to enzyme kinetics produces a fundamental limit to cell function. M. rubrum acclimates to light- and temperature-limited polar conditions and closely regulates photosynthesis in its cryptophyte organelles. By acquiring and maintaining physiologically viable, plastic plastids, M. rubrum establishes a selective advantage over purely heterotrophic ciliates but reduces competition with other phototrophs by exploiting a very low-light niche.