Coccolithophores are single-celled marine algae that produce calcified scales called coccoliths. Each scale is composed of anvil-shaped single crystals of calcite that are mechanically interlocked, constituting a remarkable example of the multi-level construction of mineralized structures. Coccolith formation starts with the nucleation of rhombohedral crystals on an organic substrate called base plate. The crystals then grow preferentially along specific directions to generate the mature structure, which is then transported to the outside of the cells. Here, we extracted forming coccoliths from Pleurochrysis carterae cells and used cryo-electron tomography to characterize, in their native, hydrated state, the three-dimensional morphology and arrangement of the crystals. Comparing the crystal morphology across three different stages of coccolith formation, we show that competition for space between adjacent crystals contributes significantly to regulation of morphology by constraining growth in certain directions. We further demonstrate that crystals within a coccolith ring develop at different rates and that each crystalline unit rests directly in contact with the base plate and overgrow the rim of the organic substrate during development.
- Cryo-electron microscopy
- Crystal growth