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Chemosynthetic symbioses

Image: M. Franke, modified after Dubilier N, Bergin C, Lott C (2008), Icons: B. Seah

Research in the Symbiosis Department focuses on chemosynthetic symbioses in marine invertebrates. In these symbioses, chemosynthetic bacteria provide most or all of the host’s nutrition by tapping the energy in reduced compounds such as methane, hydrogen, or hydrogen sulfide, and using this energy to build organic matter to feed their hosts.


Chemosynthetic symbioses were first discovered in the late 1970s at hydrothermal vents in the deep sea.

“Isn’t the deep ocean supposed to be like a desert?”


“Well, there’s all these animals down here.”

Ironically, chemosynthetic symbioses are abundant in much more easily accessible habitats such as shallow water sediments, but these were only discovered more recently. Intriguingly, these symbioses did not only evolve once, but have been established numerous times independently in a broad variety of animal phyla including nematodes, annelids, mollusks, flatworms, sponges and arthropods.

Symbioses in wood-boring bivalves

Wood-bo­ring clams di­gest wood with the help of sym­bio­tic bac­te­ria in their gills. Clams of the sub­fa­mi­ly Xy­lo­pha­gai­nae are the pri­ma­ry de­gra­ders of sun­ken wood on the deep sea floor, but very litt­le is known about their sym­bi­onts.


Our research is funded by

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