If I didn’t study Volvox, I would probably study placozoa. Placozoa are animals, but you wouldn’t know it to look at them. They look and behave very much like giant amoebae, big enough to be visible to the naked eye.
While writing the previous post, I wanted to know if the long-standing tradition of not naming species after oneself is just a tradition or an actual rule. Rules and guidelines for this sort of thing are set by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, so I checked their website. In the section about Latinizing proper names, I found this gem:
I spent a year in graduate school trying to cross male and female strains of the volvocine green alga Pleodorina californica. A year. I did some other stuff in that time, but I spent an awful lot of it trying to convince these algae to get busy. I threw everything I could think of at them: four different mating media, different temperatures, different lighting conditions…nothing worked. I never recovered a single viable zygote. I needed to cross them to generate some genetic variation for an ambitious artificial selection study, my ‘official’ dissertation project. Eventually, my advisor suggested I ask Hisayoshi Nozaki for advice.
There is little doubt that Dr. Nozaki is the world’s leading expert on volvocine biodiversity, having described about half of the known species (see for example New Volvox Species, Volvox ovalis, and African Volvox in Montana). He responded that the strains of Pleodorina californica I had been failing to breed had been collected many years ago and had probably lost the ability to reproduce sexually (a problem I mentioned in Why don’t we revise volvocine taxonomy?). I had been spinning my wheels, never realizing that I had no hope of success. I should have contacted Dr. Nozaki about eleven months earlier.
The meeting review for the Third International Volvox Conference is now available online at Molecular Ecology (doi: 10.1111/mec.13551). The editors warned me ahead of time that the challenge for this paper would be to make it of broad interest to the readership of Molecular Ecology, so there is a lot of background information that will be old news to members of the Volvox community.
Volvox ovalis was described by Hisayoshi Nozaki and Annette Coleman in 2011 from a strain collected near College Station, Texas. Colonies are often distinctly egg-shaped, up to 450 µm long, with 1000-2000 somatic cells and 8-12 gonidia. A member of the section Merrillosphaera, it is closely related to V. tertius and V. spermatosphaera:
The worst-kept secret among Volvox researchers is that the current volvocine taxonomy is a train wreck. Within the largest family, the Volvocaceae, five nominal genera are polyphyletic (Pandorina, Volvulina, Eudorina, Pleodorina, and Volvox). Of the remaining three, two are monotypic (Platydorina and Yamagishiella). Only the newly described Colemanosphaera is monophyletic with more than one species. The extent of the problem was suspected long before it was confirmed by molecular phylogenetics, and ad hoc attempts to deal with it have led to the existence of such taxonomic abominations as ‘sections,’ ‘formas,’ and ‘syngens.’ An overhaul is called for, but it is complicated by the aforementioned loss of type cultures.