BACKGROUND: Electrical impulses in animals play essential roles in co-ordinating an array of physiological functions including movement, secretion, environmental sensing and development. Underpinning many of these electrical signals is a fast Na+-based action potential that has been fully characterised only in cells associated with the neuromuscular systems of multicellular animals. Such rapid action potentials are thought to have evolved with the first metazoans, with cnidarians being the earliest representatives. The present study demonstrates that a unicellular protist, the marine diatom Odontella sinensis, can also generate a fast Na+/Ca2+ based action potential that has remarkably similar biophysical and pharmacological properties to invertebrates and vertebrate cardiac and skeletal muscle cells. METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: The kinetic, ionic and pharmacological properties of the rapid diatom action potential were examined using single electrode current and voltage clamp techniques. Overall, the characteristics of the fast diatom currents most closely resemble those of vertebrate and invertebrate muscle Na+/Ca2+ currents. CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: This is the first demonstration of voltage-activated Na+ channels and the capacity to generate fast Na+-based action potentials in a unicellular photosynthetic organism. The biophysical and pharmacological characteristics together with the presence of a voltage activated Na+/Ca2+ channel homologue in the recently sequenced genome of the diatom Thalassiosira pseudonana, provides direct evidence supporting the hypothesis that this rapid signalling mechanism arose in ancestral unicellular eukaryotes and has been retained in at least two phylogenetically distant lineages of eukaryotes; opisthokonts and the stramenopiles. The functional role of the fast animal-like action potential in diatoms remains to be elucidated but is likely involved in rapid environmental sensing of these widespread and successful marine protists.
Taylor, A. R. (2009). A fast Na+/Ca2+-based action potential in a marine diatom. PLoS ONE, 4(3). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0004966