Novel insights into protist diversity and niche adaptation using single cell transcriptomics

Abstract: Protists are a polyphyletic group of microbes that represents the vast majority of eukaryotic diversity. Despite this, most sequencing efforts targeting eukaryotes have been focused on animals, fungi and plants. The sequencing bias towards multicellular organisms can partially be explained by the difficulty in cultivating protists, which is needed in traditional sequencing workflows. In this thesis, single-cell RNA sequencing has been used to generate transcriptome data from environmental protists, without being dependent on establishing a culture. These transcriptome data have been used to discover novel protist diversity, as well as exploring the cell biology of two ciliates.In the first chapter, transcriptomes of cell fragments were generated for the ciliate Stentor. This ciliate is well-known for its ability to repair drastic cellular wounds, and the transcriptomes uncovered genes involved in processes such as cell cycle, signaling and microtubule-based movement to be activated during Stentor regeneration.Spirostomum semivirescens is another ciliate, whose transcriptome was generated using single-cell RNA sequencing. The transcriptome data suggest that S. semivirescens is using rhodoquinol-dependent fumarate reduction for respiration in environments with low levels of oxygen.Single-cell RNA sequencing was further used to target cells smaller than Stentor and Spirostomum. By generating 124 transcriptomes of environmental protists, a high number of novel lineages could be identified. The generated transcriptome data included free-living prokinetoplastids, non-photosynthetic euglenids, metamonads and katablepharids.A few modifications to the single-cell RNA sequencing protocol Smart-seq2 were necessary to generate the 124 transcriptomes of small protists cells. The impact of these modifications to Smart-seq2 was benchmarked using Giardia intestinalis. The generated single-cell transcriptomes revealed that addition of freeze-thaw cycles to Smart-seq2 improved transcript recovery. Finally, we propose a protocol that allows identification of failed cDNA reactions, based only on measuring DNA concentration, without compromising on transcript recovery. Reducing the dependency on quality control will be important if single-cell RNA sequencing would be done in a high-throughput workflow.In conclusion, single-cell RNA sequencing can be a powerful tool for studying protist diversity and biology. In particular, it has the potential to efficiently uncover protist diversity, provided that a robust and efficient method to isolate single cells from the environment is established.