Biologists have been familiar with a pattern of smaller body sizes with increasing temperatures for a long time, in fact, so familiar that Bergmann dubbed a “Temperature-Size Rule” in 1847.
Like many things to do with size, it is difficult to separate the effects of temperature on size from other traits that co-vary with size; metabolism for example. It may be that higher temperatures cause the evolution of faster metabolic rates and metabolic rate is genetically correlated with size. So that it is, in fact, metabolic rate that is the target of selection, not size.
Martino Malerba and Dustin Marshall were again able to take advantage of the evolved large and small algal cells to see if they could unambiguously assign any effects of temperature on size, to size alone. They wanted to find out if (and how) temperature affected fitness for different sized organisms.
To do this they used algal cells that had experienced 290 generations of artificial selection and where large selected cells were 13 times bigger than small selected cells. They then exposed these different lines (including the control lines) to three temperatures 18 °C, 22 °C and 26 °C and measured cell size, population density and cell production rates after three and six days.
They found that the smaller cells did better at higher temperatures; that is, the fitness proxies of cell production rate and population densities were both greater for small cells at higher temperatures. This means that Martino and Dustin have shown that size on its own can affect performance across different temperatures.
They then wanted to know why are cells smaller at higher temperatures; what is the advantage? It has long been thought that smaller cells do better in warmer temperatures because they have a greater surface-area to volume ratio. This would make them better able to take up resources such as nutrients, CO2 and light at the same time as increasing temperatures increase a cell’s demand for resources through increased enzyme activity and protein synthesis.
If this was the case, Martino and Dustin expected the large and small cells to show differences in performance at higher temperatures when resources were abundant (days 0 to 3) compared to when resources were depleted (days 3 to 6). But they found no difference in the fitness of large and small cells that related to resources suggesting that advantages of smaller cells at higher temperatures was not related to a greater surface-area to volume ratio.
Instead they measured the concentrations of reactive oxygen species in their selected lines of large and small cells. Reactive oxygen species are known to increase oxidative stress, damage DNA and so reduce the performance of a cell and also accumulate at higher temperatures. Martino found that the larger cells had almost five times more reactive oxygen species than smaller cells. And the larger cells had relatively smaller nuclei, meaning that there was twice the reactive oxygen species loading around the nuclei in large selected cells.
Martino and Dustin think that it is likely that small cells do better at higher temperatures, not because they are able to access more resources per unit volume, but because they are less prone to toxicity from reactive oxygen species.