Basal body development and flagellar regression and growth in the unicellular green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardii were studied by light and electron microscopy during the vegetative cell cycle in synchronous cultures and during the sexual life cycle.

Flagella regress by gradual shortening prior to vegetative cell division and also a few hours after cell fusion in the sexual cycle. In vegetative cells basal bodies remain attached to the plasma membrane by their transitional fibres and do not act as centrioles at the spindle poles during division. In zygotes the basal bodies and associated microtubular roots and cross-striated connexions all dissolve, and by 6.5 h after mating all traces of flagellar apparatus and associated structures have disappeared. They remain absent for 6 days throughout zygospore maturation and then are reassembled during zygospore germination, after meiosis has begun.

Basal body assembly in developing zygospores occurs close to the plasma membrane (in the absence of pre-existing basal bodies) via an intermediate stage consisting of nine single A-tubules surrounding a central ‘cartwheel’. Assembly is similar in vegetative cells (and occurs prior to cell division), except that new basal bodies are physically attached to old ones by amorphous material. In vegetative cells, amorphous disks, which may possibly be still earlier stages in basal-body development occur in the same location as 9-singlet developing basal bodies. After the 9-singlet structure is formed, B and C fibres are added and the basal body elongates to its mature length. Microtubular roots, striated connexions and flagella are then assembled. Both flagellar regression and growth are gradual and sequential, the transitional region at the base of the flagellum being formed first and broken down last. The presence of amorphous material at the tip of the axoneme of growing and regressing flagella suggests that the axoneme grows or shortens by the sequential assembly or disassembly at its tip.

In homogenized cells basal bodies remain firmly attached to each other by their striated connexions. The flagellar transitional region, and parts of the membrane and of the 4 microtubular roots, also remain attached; so also do new developing basal bodies, if present. These structures are well preserved in homogenates and new fine-structural details can be seen.

These results are discussed, and lend no support to the idea that basal bodies have genetic continuity. It is suggested that basal body development can be best understood if a distinction is made between the information needed to specify the structure of a basal body and that needed to specify its location and orientation.

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