Phytoplankton rely on bioactive zwitterionic and highly polar small metabolites with osmoregulatory properties to compensate changes in the salinity of the surrounding seawater. Dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) is a main representative of this class of metabolites. Salinity-dependent DMSP biosynthesis and turnover contribute significantly to the global sulfur cycle. Using advanced chromatographic and mass spectrometric techniques that enable the detection of highly polar metabolites, we identified cysteinolic acid as an additional widely distributed polar metabolite in phytoplankton. Cysteinolic acid belongs to the class of marine sulfonates, metabolites that are commonly produced by algae and consumed by bacteria. It was detected in all dinoflagellates, haptophytes, diatoms and prymnesiophytes that were surveyed. We quantified the metabolite in different phytoplankton taxa and revealed that the cellular content can reach even higher concentrations than the ubiquitous DMSP. The cysteinolic acid concentration in the cells of the diatom Thalassiosira weissflogii
increases significantly when grown in a medium with elevated salinity. In contrast to the compatible solute ectoine, cysteinolic acid is also found in high concentrations in axenic algae, indicating biosynthesis by the algae and not the associated bacteria. Therefore, we add this metabolite to the family of highly polar metabolites with osmoregulatory characteristics produced by phytoplankton.
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