Tag Archives: algae

Scientists discover algae with three sexes

Left: Sexually induced male colony of algae. Center: Pleodorina starrii female colony with male sperm packet (arrowhead). Right: Pleodorina starrii female colony with dissociated male gametes (arrowheads). Scale bar = 50 micrometers. Credit: Kohei Takahashi.

For more than 30 years, Hisayoshi Nozaki had been studying algae samples from freshwater systems close to Tokyo. But even he, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo with extensive experience studying algae, was surprised to find a new species that evolved three different sexes, which can breed in pairs with each other. It’s the first time that such an alga has ever been found.

When two sexes are just not enough

The earliest lifeforms that evolved on Earth billions of years ago reproduced asexually — essentially cloning themselves. Later, some organisms evolved sexual reproduction, which requires two parents to each contribute a gamete (sex cells like sperm and eggs) in order to produce offspring with unique genetic characteristics.

Both modes of reproduction have their pros and cons, but how exactly this transition took place is not very well understood.

Some organisms are hermaphrodites, being equipped with both male and female reproductive organs due to very unusual gene expression. However, the new kind of green algae found by Nozaki, known as Pleodorina starrii, is no hermaphrodite. It has three distinct sexes: male, female, and a third sex that the Japanese researchers call bisexual in recognition of the fact that it can produce both male and female sex cells (but with normal expression of genes unlike hermaphrodites).

“It seems very uncommon to find a species with three sexes, but in natural conditions, I think it may not be so rare,” said Nozaki.

For Nozaki, the peculiar algae found in Lake Sagami and Lake Tsukui are of great interest. They may help scientists uncover how early primitive organisms evolved into individuals that sexually reproduce.

In normal conditions, P. starrii grow into spherical colonies composed of 32- or 64-celled organisms that have small mobile (male) and large immobile (female) sex cells. Male colonies are recognizable by the packets of sperm they release into the water. These sperm swim until they encounter a female colony, where they combine with the female cells to produce a new generation.

But during new experiments, the Japanese researchers separated P. starrii colonies into male and female and then deprived these isolated colonies of nutrients. In isolation the colonies reproduce asexually, forming clones with the same genotype. If they’re separated and deprived of nutrients at the same time, the colonies are forced to reproduce sexually.

The researchers found that some P. starrii individuals have bisexual-factor genes that produce normal male or female colonies when they reproduce sexually with other P. starrii colonies. Genetically male P. starrii have only the OTOKOGI male-type gene (a Japanese word meaning “manly”) and genetically female algae can have either only the female-type HIBOTAN genes or both HIBOTAN and the bisexual-factor genes. The researchers suspect that the bisexual factor may only be active in the presence of the “manly” OTOKOGI.

Although algae are very different from humans, this investigation may allow scientists to gain a better grasp of the ways that evolution shape different sexes we recognize as male or female in our own species.

“This finding was possible because of our very long-term experience of going on field collection trips and our practice growing and studying algae. Continued, long-term studies are very important to unveil the true nature of species in the natural world,” Nozaki commented.

The findings were published in the journal Evolution.

Algae-based material could revolutionize the fashion industry

For the first time, researchers have used 3D printers and a novel bioprinting technique to develop a sustainable material made from algae that is tough and resilient. The material could have a wide range of applications, from space exploration to the fashion industry, eventually producing sustainable clothing.

Image credit: Flickr / Captain SkyHawk

New in fashion

New materials incorporating living organisms such as algae and bacteria — and the everyday products made with these materials — offer alternatives to less sustainable but commonly-used materials do a lot of environmental harm. The need to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and on fossil materials require novel material solutions to be developed, and this algae material is just what the doctor ordered.

“3D printing is a powerful technology for fabrication of living functional materials that have a huge potential in a wide range of environmental and human-based applications,” Srikkanth Balasubramanian, lead author, said in a statement. “We provide the first example of an engineered photosynthetic material that is physically robust enough to be deployed in real-life applications.”

To create the living material, the researchers started working with non-living bacterial cellulose, an organic compound that is produced and excreted by bacteria. It has unique mechanical properties, such as flexibility, toughness, strength, and ability to retain its shape – even when twisted, crushed, or otherwise physically distorted. It’s exactly what you want in clothing.

The researchers then used a 3D printer to deposit living algae onto the bacterial cellulose. The bacterial cellulose is like the paper in a printer while living microalgae acts as the ink. The combination of both components led to creating a material with the robustness of the bacterial cellulose and the photosynthetic quality of the algae, blending the best of both worlds.

It’s tough and resilient while also eco-friendly, biodegradable, and simple and scalable to produce. The plant-like nature of the material means it can use photosynthesis to “feed” itself over periods of many weeks, and it is also able to be regenerated — a small sample of the material can be grown on-site to make more materials. This would allow the fashion industry to become more circular and less wasteful.

Beyond fashion

These features make the material a good candidate for a wide variety of applications in areas such as energy, medicine, fashion, and space technology, the researchers argued. They even suggested that it could be used to develop artificial leaves, photosynthetic surfaces, or photosynthetic garments.

Artificial leaves are materials that mimic actual leaves, using the sunshine to convert water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and energy. Just like it happens in photosynthesis. Leaves store energy in chemical form as sugars, which can then be converted into fuels. This render leaves as a way of producing sustainable energy in places where plants don’t grow well.

“For artificial leaves, our materials are like taking the ‘best parts’ of plants – the leaves – which can create sustainable energy, without needing to use resources to produce parts of plants that need resources but don’t produce energy,” Anne Meyer, co-author, said in a statement. “We are making a material that is only focused on the sustainable production of energy.”

The materials could also change the fashion sector, the researchers argued. Clothes made from algae would address some of the negative environmental effects of the textile industry, manufacturing high-quality fabrics that would be sustainability produced and completely biodegradable. Plus, they would not need to be washed as often as conventional clothes.

The study was published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

Photosynthesis could be as old as life itself

Photosynthesis has been supporting life for longer than previously assumed, according to a new paper. The finding suggests that the earliest bacteria that wiggled their way around the planet were able to perform key processes involved in photosynthesis.

Image via Pixabay.

Exactly how the earliest organisms on our planet lived and evolved is an area of active interest and research — but not answers are few and scarce. However, a new paper could fundamentally change how we think about this process.

The advent of photosynthesis on a large scale is one of the most significant events that shaped life on Earth. Not only did this process feed bacteria and plants that would then support for entire ecosystems, but it also led to a massive increase in atmospheric oxygen levels, basically making our planet livable in the first place. Oxygen that we and other complex life still breathe to this day.

To the best of our understanding , it took life several billion years to evolve the ability to perform photosynthesis. However, if the findings of this new study are confirmed, it means complex life could have appeared much earlier.

A light diet

“We had previously shown that the biological system for performing oxygen-production, known as Photosystem II, was extremely old, but until now we hadn’t been able to place it on the timeline of life’s history. Now, we know that Photosystem II show patterns of evolution that are usually only attributed to the oldest known enzymes, which were crucial for life itself to evolve.”

The team led by researchers from Imperial College London studied the evolutionary process of certain proteins that are crucial for photosynthesis. Their findings show that these could possibly have first appeared in the very early days of life on Earth.

They traced the ‘molecular clock’ of key proteins involved in the splitting of water molecules. This approach looks at the time between ‘evolutionary moments’, events such as the emergence of different groups of cyanobacteria or land plants that carry a version of these proteins. They then used this to calculate the rate at which the proteins evolved over time — by backtracking this rate, researchers can estimate when a protein first appeared.

A comparison with other known proteins, including some used in genetic data manipulation that should (in theory) be older than life itself, as well as comparison with more recent events, suggests that these photosynthesizing enzymes are very old. According to the team, they have nearly identical patterns of evolution to the oldest enzymes — suggesting they evolved at a similar rate for a similar time.

Based on what we know so far, type II photosynthesis (which produces oxygen) likely appeared around 2.5 billion years ago in cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), with type I likely evolving some time before that. But there’s something that doesn’t really mesh with that timeframe: we know that there were pockets of atmospheric oxygen before this time. This means that biological communities were around to produce said oxygen even before the 2.5 billion years ago mark, since oxygen is extremely reactive and doesn’t last long in nature without binding to something. Researchers have been trying to reconcyle this for a while.

The current findings could help make everything fit. According to the team, key enzymes that underpin photosynthesis were likely present in the earliest bacteria on Earth. There’s still some uncertainty about this, as life on our planet is at least 3.4 billion years old, but it could be older than 4 billion years.

The first versions of the process were probably simplified, very inefficient versions of the one seen in plants and algae today. It took biology around one billion years to tweak and refine the process, which eventually led to the appearance of cyanobacteria. From there, it took two more billion years for plants and animals to colonize dry land, with the latter breathing oxygen produced by the former.

One interesting implication of these findings is that it could mean life would evolve much quicker and easier on other planets than previously assumed. We tend to estimate this based on how quickly and easily life appeared and then developed on Earth.

The paper “Time-resolved comparative molecular evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis” has been published in the journal Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – Bioenergetics.

The Arctic Ocean is blooming with algae as the ice sheet melts

A surprising shift is currently happening in the Arctic Ocean, a new study has found. Dark water is blooming with phytoplankton, the tiny algae at the base of the food web, as sunlight floods spaces that used to be obscured by ice that is no longer there.

Credit Flickr

Researchers from Stanford University found that there has been a 57% increase in phytoplankton in the Arctic ocean over the past two decades. This has exceeded the researcher’s expectations, as it’s changing the way the ocean stores carbon and sucking up resources needed for the rest of the ecosystem.

“The rates are really important in terms of how much food there is for the rest of the ecosystem,” Earth system scientist and co-author Kevin Arrigo told Science Alert. “It’s also important because this is one of the main ways that CO2 is pulled out of the atmosphere and into the ocean.”

The Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet, having experienced a temperature increase of 0.75 degrees Celsius (1.35 degrees Fahrenheit) in the last decade alone. Meanwhile, Earth as a whole has warmed by nearly the same amount, 0.8 degrees C, but over the past 137 years.

Arrigo and his colleagues looked at net primary production (NPP), which is a degree of how fast plants and algae convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into sugars that other creatures can eat. They found that NPP in the Arctic increased by 57% between 1998 and 2018. That’s a record jump in productivity for an entire ocean basin.

Even more surprising, they discovered that while NPP increases were initially linked to retreating sea ice, productivity continued to climb even after melting slowed down around 2009. “The increase in NPP over the past decade is due almost exclusively to a recent increase in phytoplankton biomass,” Arrigo said.

This means that phytoplankton was once metabolizing more carbon across the Arctic just because they were gaining more open water over longer growing seasons, thanks to changes in ice cover driven by climate change. Now, they are growing more concentrated, according to the study’s findings.

“In a given volume of water, more phytoplankton were able to grow each year,” said in a statement lead study author Kate Lewis, who worked on the research as a Ph.D. student in Stanford’s Department of Earth System Science. “This is the first time this has been reported in the Arctic Ocean.”

Phytoplankton is absorbing more carbon year after year as new nutrients come into this ocean

Phytoplankton needs plenty of nutrients and light to grow. But their availability on the water column depends on complex factors. As a result, despite the fact that Arctic researchers have observed phytoplankton blooms going into overdrive in recent decades, they have debated how long the boom might last and how high it might climb.

The researchers assembled a massive collection of ocean floor measurements for the Arctic Ocean and built algorithms to estimate the concentration of phytoplankton. This allowed them to find new evidence that continued increases in production may no longer be as limited by scarce nutrients as once suspected.

“We knew the Arctic had increased production in the last few years, but it seemed possible the system was just recycling the same store of nutrients,” Lewis said. “Our study shows that’s not the case. Phytoplankton are absorbing more carbon year after year as new nutrients come into this ocean. That was unexpected, and it has big ecological impacts.”

The work will help to clarify how climate change will shape the Arctic Ocean’s future productivity, food supply and capacity to absorb carbon. There’s going to be winners and losers, according to Arrigo. “A more productive Arctic means more food for lots of animals. But many animals that have adapted to live in a polar environment are finding life more difficult as the ice retreats,” he argued.

The study was published in the journal Science.

Is the snow turning red in Antarctica? Well, not exactly

Are my eyes playing tricks or did the snow in Antarctica turned red? That’s what many people recently asked after seeing viral photos from a Ukrainian based, fully covered by red or watermelon snow.

Image credits Андрей Zotov (Andrey Zotov) / The National Antarctic Scientific Center of Ukraine via Facebook.

But there’s a logical explanation behind the phenomenon. The color is due to the flowering of thousands of unicellular algae called Chlamydomonas nivalis, which contain red carotene (astaxanthin) to protect against ultraviolet radiation.

The substance “acts as a sunscreen, protecting the algae from the dreaded ultraviolet radiation, but allowing the passage of other wavelengths necessary to perform photosynthesis,” said the Spanish physicist Mar Gomez on a Twitter thread.

The viral photos were captured by marine ecologist Andrey Zotov from the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine while he was doing research in the area. He and his colleagues identified the green algae, common in icy and snow regions, with a microscope.

Zotov explained that the green algae sleep during the winter and then wakes up later in the year thanks to the higher temperatures and the sunlight. The algae use the sunlight and the meltwater to bloom, which is the phenomenon seen in the photos.

But this is not exclusive to the green algae, as there are more than 350 different types that can survive extreme temperatures.

The green algae have a two tail-like structure that allows them to swim. When they mature, they lose that mobility but develop features to survive the extreme temperatures, including an insulating cell wall and a layer of red carotenoids, changing their appearance from green to orange to finally red.

At the same time, the carotenoids help the algae to absorb warmth, creating more meltwater for them to thrive. While this is helpful for the algae, it’s not so much for the planet, as the algae bloom has been found to contribute to climate change.

In 2016, a study concluded the snow algal blooms decreases the amount of light reflected from the snow by 13% in one melt season in the Arctic. At the same time, in 2017, researchers argued microbial communities, including the algae, contributed to more than a sixth of the snowmelt in the locations they were present.

Temperature records continue to be broken in Antarctica, one of the regions in the world most affected by climate change, causing the rapid melting of snow and ice. Since the 1950s, the temperature in Antarctica has risen by more than 0.05 °C (0.09 °F) per decade.

Between 1979 and 2017, Antarctica has experienced a sixfold increase in yearly ice mass loss — and this rate doesn’t seem to be slowing down. During this period, global sea levels rose by almost 13 millimeters (half an inch), according to a recent study.

Billion-year-old green algae is a relative of all plants on dry land

Researchers at Virginia Tech report finding what may be a relative of today’s land plants ancestors — tiny green algae in modern China.

The algae fossils seen under the microscope.
Image credits Shuhai Xiao, Qing Tang / Virginia Tech.

Scientists have recently discovered a new fossil species of green algae. These diminutive seaweeds belong to a species known as Proterocladus antiquus, and each individual measures 2 millimeters in length, making them around the size of a common flea. Currently, this represents the oldest species of green algae ever discovered.

The green chlorophyll inside their tissues strongly suggests that Proterocladus antiquus could be related to the oldest ancestors of all the plants currently dotting the Earth’s dry landmasses.

Plant, I am your father

“The entire biosphere is largely dependent on plants and algae for food and oxygen, yet land plants did not evolve until about 450 million years ago,” said Shuhai Xiao, co-lead author of the paper and a Professor at Virginia’s Department of Geosciences.

“Our study shows that green seaweeds evolved no later than 1 billion years ago, pushing back the record of green seaweeds by about 200 million years. What kind of seaweeds supplied food to the marine ecosystem?”

The microfossils were found in rocks recovered at a site near the city of Dalian, in the Liaoning Province of northern China, an area that used to be a shallow ocean. The discovery suggests that green seaweeds were an important player in global ecosystems long before plants took root on dry soil.

These tiny algae were first spotted by Qing Tang, a post-doctoral researcher at Virginia’s Department of Geosciences, using an electron microscope. He shared this with Xiao and the duo worked to improve the imagining of the algae, and to date and describe the species.

A digital reconstruction of the species in a shallow ocean environment.
Image credits Shuhai Xiao, Qing Tang / Virginia Tech.

There are three groups of seaweed, brown (Phaeophyceae), green (Chlorophyta), and red (Rhodophyta) algae, each containing thousands of species. Red algae, the most common group today, are known to have existed from as far back as 1.047 billion years ago. Shuhai explains that land plants are believed to have evolved from green algae which moved and adapted to life on dry land. However, Xiao adds that not everyone is in agreement with this hypothesis.

“Not everyone agrees with us; some scientists think that green plants started in rivers and lakes, and then conquered the ocean and land later,” he says.

Red algae do photosynthesize, but they use up a different part of the light spectrum than green plants (namely the color blue, which penetrates water more easily). However, red algae use the pigment phycoerythrin to absorb blue light — making them appear red. This points to green seaweeds as a more likely ancestor for today’s plants. Furthermore, the team reports that “a group of modern green seaweeds, known as siphonocladaleans, are particularly similar in shape and size to the fossils we found.”

Today, plants underpin complex life on the planet by providing food and oxygen (through photosynthesis) for all animals. However, around 2 billion years ago, the Earth had no green plants at all in oceans, Xiao said.

“[Proterocladus antiquus displays] multiple branches, upright growths, and specialized cells known as akinetes that are very common in this type of fossil,” he adds. “Taken together, these features strongly suggest that the fossil is a green seaweed with complex multicellularity that is circa 1 billion years old. These likely represent the earliest fossil of green seaweeds. In short, our study tells us that the ubiquitous green plants we see today can be traced back to at least 1 billion years.”

According to Xiao and Tang, the tiny seaweeds once lived in a shallow ocean, died, and then became “cooked” beneath a thick pile of sediment, preserving the organic shapes of the seaweeds as fossils. Many millions of years later, the sediment was then lifted up out of the ocean and became the dry land where the fossils were retrieved by Xiao and his team, which included scientists from Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology in China.

The paper has been published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Algae bioreactor sucks as much carbon as an acre of trees

Credit: Hypergiant Industries.

Tackling our current climate emergency requires not only an immediate transition towards 100% renewable energy but also strategic mitigation of some of the CO2 in the atmosphere. Yes, ‘plant more trees‘ is part of the solution but it’s not enough, which is why some research groups are looking into alternative carbon-capturing methods.

One exciting new proposal involves an algae bioreactor that can capture and sequester as much carbon as an acre of trees, occupying just a fraction of this surface area.

The 1.7-cubic-meter (63-cubic-foot) prototype, known the Eos Bioreactor, was developed by a startup called Hypergiant Industries.

Algae convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, power plants or steel processing exhaust into algae oil. This can then be used as food as a rich source of protein or to produce valuable goods like carbon fiber, a lightweight, high-strength material.

“This device is one of our first efforts focused on fixing the planet we are on,” said Hypergiant CEO Ben Lamm in a statement. “We hope to inspire and collaborate with others on a similar mission.”

A study performed recently by Swiss researchers at ETH Zurich found that there’s enough room in the world left for planting roughly one trillion trees. If allowed to mature, these extra forests would store 205 gigatons of carbon, roughly equal to two-thirds of all the carbon humans have added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Age. This would bring down heat-trapping greenhouse gases to levels not seen for nearly 100 years.

Planting these many trees, however, is a massive undertaking. Realistically, we’re only going to manage to plant a fraction of this magic trillion. This is why devices such as this bioreactor — which has a CO2 absorption equivalent to 400 trees — is so valuable.

According to Futurism, the company plans on making the blueprint for the bioreactor open source so that developers and engineers from all over the world can propose improvements to the design.

Belize Sargassum.

Satellite imaging used to spot the largest seaweed bloom in the world

Researchers at the USF College of Marine Science report discovering the largest bloom of macroalgae in the world — the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt (GASB).

Belize Sargassum.

Sargassum on a beach in Belize.
Image via Pixabay.

Based on computer simulations, the team reports that the GASB’s shape has formed in response to ocean currents. This brown macroalgae belt blankets the surface of the tropical Atlantic Ocean from the west coast of Africa to the Gulf of Mexico, and formed last year as 20 million tons of algae floated in surface waters and wreaked havoc on shorelines around the tropical Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and the east coast of Florida.

All the algae

The seaweed, the team reports, grows seasonally in response to two nutrient inputs, one natural and one human-derived. The Amazon River’s spring and summer discharge floods the ocean with fresh nutrients; this discharge may have increased in recent years due to deforestation and fertilizer use in the area. In the winter, upwelling off the West African coast delivers nutrients from deep waters to the ocean surface where the Sargassum grows.

“The evidence for nutrient enrichment is preliminary and based on limited field data and other environmental data, and we need more research to confirm this hypothesis,” said Dr. Chuanmin Hu of the USF College of Marine Science, who led the study and has studied Sargassum using satellites since 2006.

“On the other hand, based on the last 20 years of data, I can say that the belt is very likely to be a new normal,” said Hu.

Hu’s team used data from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) between 2000-2018. They also analyzed fertilizer consumption patterns in Brazil, Amazon deforestation rates, Amazon River discharge, and two years of nitrogen and phosphorus measurements taken from the central western parts of the Atlantic Ocean (among other ocean properties) to see whether they linked with the blooms.

Bloom evolution.

Image credits Mengqiu Wang, Chuanmin Hu / USF College of Marine Science

Based on the data, they report a possible shift in the pattern of these blooms since 2011. Before this point, most of the pelagic Sargassum in the ocean was clumped up around the Gulf of Mexico and the Sargasso Sea (on the western edge of the central Atlantic Ocean). After 2011, Sargassum populations made big appearances in places the algae hadn’t been encountered before, such as the central Atlantic, growing in massive blobs that suffocated local life along the shoreline and entangled shipping. Some countries, such as Barbados, declared a national emergency because of the toll this once-healthy seaweed took on tourism.

“The ocean’s chemistry must have changed in order for the blooms to get so out of hand,” Hu said.

Sargassum reproduces vegetatively (i.e. from a parent plant or fragments), and the team believes there are several ‘initiation zones’ from which it propagates into the wider Atlantic. They also explain that the plant grows faster when environmental conditions are favorable. The results, while preliminary, do show a strong correlation between the recent boom in Sargassum and increases in deforestation and fertilizer use since 2010.

Key factors for bloom formation, the team found, are:

  • A large seed population in the winter left over from a previous bloom.
  • Nutrient input from West Africa upwelling in winter.
  • Nutrient input in the spring or summer from the Amazon River.
  • In addition, Sargassum only grows well when salinity is normal and surface temperatures are normal or cooler.

The bloom in 2011 was caused by rich Amazon discharge from previous years compounding with upwelling in the eastern Atlantic and river discharge on the western Atlantic. Major blooms occurred yearly after this, with the exception of 2013, as all the ingredients on the list were present. No bloom occurred in 2013 because the seed populations measured during winter of 2012 were unusually low, said first author Dr. Mengqiu Wang. The first large bloom didn’t occur in 2010 because heavy rains in 2009 reduced the overall salinity in the Amazon discharge area and because surface temperatures were higher than usual.

“This is all ultimately related to climate change because it affects precipitation and ocean circulation and even human activities, but what we’ve shown is that these blooms do not occur because of increased water temperature,” Hu said.

“They are probably here to stay.”

The team reports that what we’ll likely see in the future is a recurring pattern of Sargassum blooming in late January to early April, which will develop into a Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt up through to July. After this, the bloom will increasingly dissipate until winter.

“We hope this provides a framework for improved understanding and response to this emerging phenomenon,” Hu said. “We need a lot more follow-on work.”

The team, however, cautions that predicting future blooms and their evolution is tricky because they depend on a large palette of factors that are hard to predict.

The paper “The great Atlantic Sargassum belt” has been published in Science.

Researchers look into reviving bleached corals using ‘non-preferred’ algal symbiotes

New research is looking into what makes algae ‘move in’ with their coral hosts — and why the partnership can turn sour, both under normal conditions and when temperatures increase.

Coral polyp.

Coral polyps extending to feed.
Image credits Егор Камелев.

What we know as corals aren’t really alive. They are large exoskeletons built by tiny animals called polyps. Tiny but industrious, these polyps work tirelessly to create the world’s wonderfully colorful coral reefs. A polyp has a sac-like body that ends in a mouth crowned with stinging tentacles called nematocysts (or cnidae). These animals filter calcium and carbonate ions from seawater that they combine to form the limestone (calcium carbonate) they use to build corals that protect their soft, defenseless bodies. If you ever get a chance to visit a coral reef at night, you’ll see these polyps extend their tentacles out to feed.

However, none of this would be possible without the help of various species of single-celled algae we call zooxanthellae, a type of dinoflagellate. These algae live in symbiosis with the polyps, taking up residence inside their cells in a mutually-beneficial relationship: the algae produce nutrients via photosynthesis, while polyps supply the raw materials. The algae are also what gives coral their dazzling colors, which brings us neatly to the subject of:

Bleaching

Warmer mean ocean temperatures (due to anthropic climate change) can apply so much thermal stress on the polyps that they ‘evict’ their symbiotic bacteria in a phenomenon called bleaching. We refer to it this way because, as the algae get expelled, the coral skeletons revert to their natural color: bone-white. If the bleached coral is not recolonized with new algae soon, however, it can die.

“We’re interested in understanding the cellular processes that maintain those preferential relationships,” says Arthur Grossman from the Carnegie Institution for Science, one of the paper’s co-authors.

“We also want to know if it’s possible that more heat tolerant, non-preferred algae could revive bleached coral communities even if the relationship is less efficient.”

The team focused on sea anemones, which are actually closely related to coral (they’re both part of the phylumCnidaria). Sea anemones also host algae, but are easier to work with than corals. The researchers looked at the differences in cellular function that occur when Exaiptasia pallida, a type of anemone, is colonized by two different types of algae — one native strain that is susceptible to thermal bleaching (Breviolum minutum), the other non-native but more resistant to heat (Durusdinium trenchii).

“In this study we hoped to elucidate proteins that function to improve nutrient exchange between the anemone and its native algae and why the anemone’s success is compromised when it hosts the non-native heat resistant algae,” Grossman said.

The anemones colonized by the native algae strain expressed heightened levels of proteins associated with the metabolism of organic nitrogen and lipids. Both are nutrients that get synthesized through the algae’s photosynthetic activity. These anemones also synthesized a protein called NPC2-d, which is believed to underpin the cnidarians’ ability to take in algae and recognize them as a symbiotic partner.

Anemones colonized by non-native algae species expressed proteins associated with stress, the team explains. This is likely indicative of a less-than-ideal integration between the metabolisms of the two organisms, they add.

“Our findings open doors to future studies to identify key proteins and cellular mechanisms involved in maintaining a robust relationship between the alga and its cnidarian host and the ways in which the metabolism of the organisms are integrated,” Grossman concluded.

The results can be used to further our understanding of the biochemical mechanisms that facilitate successful interactions between algae species and the corals that house them. Researchers can explore the metabolic pathways identified in this study to potentially find ways to merge corals with more heat-resistant species — all in a bid to help them both survive in the warmer world we’re creating on Earth.

The paper “Proteomics quantifies protein expression changes in a model cnidarian colonised by a thermally tolerant but suboptimal symbiont” has been published in the journal Nature.

Renewable flip flops: scientists produce the “No. 1” footwear in the world from algae

Students and researchers at the University of California (UC) San Diego want to fix our plastic problem, one flip flop at a time. They’ve developed and produced the first algae-based, renewable flip flops in the world.

Triton flip flops.

Image credits UC San Diego.

Their first prototypes, developed over the summer months in a York Hall chemistry lab, are pretty basic as far as flip flops go. They’re made of a flexible, spongy sole, a simple strap, and a trident logo. But between its projected cost of $3 per pair and carbon-neutral production process, they might just help change the world’s environments for the better.

Step-by-step

Flip flops are the shoe on Earth. An estimated 3 billion of them find their way into waterways and the ocean each year, constituting a major plastic pollution source for marine environments. That’s because 3 billion petroleum-based flip flops are produced worldwide each year, eventually ending up as non-biodegradable trash in landfills, rivers, and oceans around the globe.

“These are the shoes of a fisherman and a farmer,” says Stephen Mayfield, UC San Diego professor of biology, who headed the research work alongside professor of chemistry and biochemistry Skip Pomeroy. “This is the No. 1 shoe in India, the No. 1 shoe in China and the No. 1 shoe in Africa. And, in fact, one of the largest pollutants in the ocean is polyurethane from flip flops and other shoes that have been washed or thrown into rivers and flow into the ocean.”

Two years ago, the two professors and their graduate and undergrad students developed the world’s first algae-sourced surfboard. Along with a local surfboard blank manufacturer, Arctic Foam of Oceanside, they developed a method to make algae oil hard enough to replace the polyurethane foam core in a surfboard, typically produced from petroleum. It was a big success among the surfing community, which was looking for more sustainable and eco-friendly way to construct boards.

Starting from that research, the duo wanted to expand. Surfboards were “the first obvious product to make” from algae, Mayfield says, but adds that “when you really look at the numbers you realize that making a flip flop or shoe sole like this is much more important.” Seeing the success algae-based foams enjoyed with the 500,000 or so boards sold around the world yearly, they decided to try the same approach for the billions of pairs of flip flops and other footwear that reach landfills (or worse, oceans) each year.

“Depending on how you do the chemistry, you can make hard foams or soft foams from algae oil,” Mayfield explains. “You can make algae-based, renewable surfboards, flip flops, polyurethane athletic shoes, car seats or even tires for your car.”

Mayfield and Pomeroy applied their idea, dubbed Triton Soles, for a $50,000 proof-of-concept grant. They received the funding via the Accelerating Innovations to Market program, initiated by UC San Diego’s Office of Innovation and Commercialization and paid for with the help of local elected officials through State Assembly Bill 2664. The goal of the bill is to bring more laboratory inventions from the campus to commercial development.

From research to retail

Along with Michael Burkart, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UC San Diego, Mayfield and Pomeroy formed a startup company called Algenesis Materials. It employs some of the students working on the flip flops, offering them much-needed practical experience in a scientific project with real-world impact.

“Part of the challenge is that typically I’d make a discovery, publish a paper and that’s sort of the end of it,” Mayfield explains. “But the best invention that you keep inside the lab really isn’t valuable for the world. And the way you make that invention valuable is to turn it into a product.”

“Teaching chemistry in the classroom is sometimes like trying to teach soccer at the chalkboard,” Pomeroy adds. “In the laboratory, students are far more engaged when they’re actually trying to solve a problem. Most people will tell you that our students are really, really bright, but they don’t always have practical experience.”

“This is a way to provide them with that.”

As Algenesis Meterials’ first product, the Triton will represent the platform on which the faculty members and students will work to refine the chemistry and manufacturing process. In time, they hope the experience will allow them to replace more petroleum-based products, such as shoe soles, car seats, or tires. The lion’s share of our oil today is, after all, originated from algae — and it is Mayfield’s hope that “anything we can make from petroleum we can ultimately make from algae.”

Triton manufacturing.

Image credits UC San Diego.

The Tritons — and any other polyurethane items made from algae oil — are more eco-friendly than their petroleum-based counterparts because the carbon used to manufacture them is captured from the atmosphere, not sourced from oil reserves. The team is also looking to make them biodegradable by converting the algae oil into polyurethane while allowing the carbon bonds inside the plastic to be degraded by microorganisms. The end goal is to make flip flops that “can be thrown into a compost pile and they will be eaten by microorganisms,” Mayfield says.

“If we can make these products sustainable and biodegradable, we can impact not only San Diego, but every beach community on the entire planet,” he says. “In San Diego, we have this fantastic surfing culture, many of our faculty and students are surfers, and I think all of us understand because of that connection to the ocean how important the environment is.”

They plan to have the flip flops commercially available sometime in 2018.

Credit: Pixabay.

How algae prepared the ground for complex life 650 million years ago

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Algae look boring and smell awful, but really, life on Earth would never be the same without them. Rich in iodine and several other important minerals, algae provide an essential food source whose nutrients migrate from the very bottom to the top of the food chain. Never were algae more important than 650 million years ago, though. Oddly enough, these simple life forms were some of the most complex at the time, surrounded by an ocean of single-celled bacteria. In a new paper, scientists argue that around that time algae population jumped a hundred to even a thousand fold. Ultimately, this planetary algae bloom set the stage for the most critical turning point in life’s history: the Cambrian explosion.

Food for thought

Life on Earth was pretty dull until the Cambrian explosion, but it was never dull after it. As Andrei eloquently put it:

The Cambrian is the time when most of the major groups of animals first appear in the fossil record. This event is sometimes called the “Cambrian Explosion,” because of the relatively short time over which this diversity of forms appears. It was a period of evolutionary experimentation; animals with complex body plans evolved walking, swimming, crawling and burrowing. Numerous diverse creatures appeared, including Anomalocaris (a 1-meter predator with moving lobes on the side of its body and 2 arm-like features next to its mouth), Diania (spiny animals with 10 pairs of legs) and the more famous trilobites.

This remarkable turn of events, however, couldn’t have come out of nowhere. Every explosion has a fuse, Jochen Brocks, a researcher at the Australian National University, has a hunch algae had a eukaryotic hand in all of this.

Mushy algae, of course, leave no fossil traces but what Brocks and colleagues found where molecular remnants of their cell walls, which are closely related to the cholesterol found in our blood. This makes them very stable and when ancient algae decomposed, these fat molecules were absorbed by sediments where they remained trapped for eons.

The rise of the algae

About 700 million years ago, runaways glaciers covered the entire planet in ice. Credit: NASA.

About 700 million years ago, runaways glaciers covered the entire planet in ice. Credit: NASA.

By painstakingly analyzing the molecular signal and separating fossil fuel contaminants, the team found algae populations rose dramatically around 650 million years ago. In a geological timeframe, this bloom happened right after the ‘Snowball Earth’ — a time when the planet became almost entirely engulfed in ice and snow. The equator, one of the hottest latitudes today, had average temperatures of around -20°C (-10°F), roughly similar to present Antarctica.

This white hell ended after about 50 million years when volcanic CO2 build-up heated the atmosphere enough to bring temperatures back into sensible limits, as far as life is concerned. Brocks believes that this massive shift grounded rocks, causing them to release phosphate — an essential nutrient and common fertilizer used in agriculture. This was the food that would explain the planetary algae bloom and the algae, in turn, would provide the food for the first animals, simple sponges.

Of course, this is quasi-speculating — it’s still the best explanation we have for why life took so long to make the big step from dull unicellular organisms to a more complex and diverse biosphere which would ultimately lead to humanity’s evolution. Consider algae had been around for more than a billion years before this ‘great boom’. The rebound after the Snowball Earth seems like the kick in the hide that life needed.

“We could not have made our discovery in any more exciting period,” Brocks wrote. “The close temporal connection between the melting of the Snowball, rising nutrient levels in the oceans, the rise of algae and the evolution of animals immediately suggest that these events must be linked.”

Findings appeared in the journal Nature.

Green ice spotted in Antarctica’s Ross Sea triggers new expedition for April

Green-tinted ice spotted in Antarctica’s Granite Harbor last week raises questions about the role algal blooms play in arctic ecosystems and the effects of shifting climate on the area.

Image credits NASA / Earth Observatory.

On March 5th, the Operational Land Imager (OLI) aboard the Landsat 8 snapped a few stunning pictures of Granite Harbor, Antarctica. This cove close to the Ross Sea sports an unusual shade of green slush ice, which was probably formed by phytoplankton trapped in freezing waters, marine glaciologist Jan Lieser of Australia’s Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Center told NASA’s Earth Observatory.

These tiny marine plants — known as microalgae — usually bloom around Antarctica during spring and summer months, when ice cover retreats allowing more sunlight to reach the ocean waters. They form the backbone of the Southern Ocean food chain, supplying abundant food to zooplankton, fish, pretty much every organism, either directly or indirectly. So they’re good news for the Antarctic. Mostly.

But it’s fall in the frozen south right now — so why are the algae still blooming? Well, it’s not the first time this happened, the Earth Observatory reported, but certain conditions have to be just right. In 2012, Lieser and her colleagues reported an enormous bloom even (124 miles/200 kilometers long and 62 miles/100 km wide) in late February and early March, just south of the current location. A scientific expedition was dispatched to make heads and tails of the discovery. They found that it wasn’t a case of free-floating algae greening the Antarctica — it’s sea-ice tinted green by algae growing in it.

Image credits NASA / Earth Observatory.

Sunlight, nutrient levels, wind and water current patterns to shift these nutrients around, as well as ice-cover, all play a part in limiting — or promoting — these blooms which can grow huge enough to be seen from space very quickly. This year, Lieser notes, there wasn’t much ice anchored to the shoreline (fast ice) which is thought to help “seed” microalgae growth. But strong offshore winds and good sunlight levels created similar conditions to previous years which fostered blooms

Still, there’s a lot we don’t understand about why these blooms happen in the autumn. A new expedition is scheduled to visit the area and study the blooms in April this year.

“Do these kinds of late-season ‘blooms’ provide the seeding conditions for the next spring’s bloom? If the algae get incorporated into the sea ice and remain more or less dormant during the winter, where do they end up after the winter?” Liese asks.

 

Seaweed might have helped determine who we are today

Millions of years ago, the Homo sapiens branch started diverging from other primitive hominids. Many things started changing, but the key aspects were in the brain. In almost every way, the brain is what separates us from our ancestors. A new study claims that seaweed provided us with many of the nutrients necessary for that development.

Your brain on seaweed

Seaweeds may have been on the menu for ancient humans. Image via Pixabay.

Pretty much every quality that defines our humanity is connected to the brain. This incredibly performant, energy-hungry organ makes us who we are, and we’re still not even close to unraveling all its secrets. But to perform properly, the brain also needs a lot of resources. Our ancestors needed a lot of resources just to get by, and when their brains started getting larger and more powerful, they needed an extra bit of resources. But it’s not just like they needed some extra food, they needed an extra type of food. Among others, the brain needs significant quantities of magnesium and zinc to function, and new research suggests we may have gotten those nutrients from algae.

“Nutrients needed for this transition from a primitive ancestor to modern Homo sapiens were (and still are) available in seaweeds. Seaweeds could be found and harvested in abundance on shores, and for a foraging lifestyle, a rich coastal environment would be a significant source of a consistent supply of these nutrients,” says Professor Ole G. Mouritsen, University of Southern Denmark.

Professor Mouritsen has dedicated much of his life to studying food science and molecular biophysics. It’s not the first time he’s suggested something like this — he’s been a long time advocate of seaweeds, highlighting their nutritional value, importance as food as well as medicinal and industrial uses. There’s still little evidence to suggest that ancient humans feasted on seaweeds, but Mouritsen backs up his claim:

“However, the changing patterns of resource distribution associated with the extensive drying and expansion of the African savannahs between 2.5 and 2 million years ago have been the impetus for a shift in foraging behavior among early members of the genus Homo. Foraging over longer distances for food would have contributed to bipedalism and a different body stature as increasingly larger ranges had to be traversed, and in the case of our primitive ancestors, this would undoubtedly lead to significant changes in diet,” the authors write.

Delicious? Debatable. Nutritious? You betcha! Image via Wikipedia.

This is still a lot of indirect evidence, but we do know that coastal areas attracted early hominoids in search for food. They likely didn’t know how tides worked, which would have prevented them from being effective fishermen, but seaweeds would have been much easier to get hold of. Basically, the study doesn’t show that they did eat seaweeds, it shows that they very well might have.

“Our ancestors would find foods like fish, crustaceans, snails, seaweeds, bird eggs and perhaps occasional dead marine vertebrates. But they probably did not have the necessary rudimental understanding of seasonal tidal cycles and their influence on shellfish availability. Seaweeds of different types, on the other hands, can be found all across the intertidal zone from the high water mark to the subtidal regions and they could be readily and repeatedly harvested for food by all family members, including women and children,” the authors state.

Nutrients for the brain

The team zoomed in on several nutrients found in seaweeds which are crucial for proper brain development — both then and now:

  • Vitamin B12. The bane of vegans worldwide, B12 is only found in animal products such as meat, eggs, fish, and milk — with one exception: it is also confirmed in Pyropia species of seaweeds. There’s a good chance it can be found in other seaweeds as well, it’s just that we haven’t analyzed them yet. B12 is crucial for blood flow in the brain which supports cognitive functions such as speech.
  • Taurine. It’s found in large amounts in the central nervous system and in the retina, especially in developing bodies. Newborns have three times more taurine than the brain of adults. Taurine can be found in red algae, marine fish, shellfish and mammal meat.
  • Magnesium. This is one of the more readily available nutrients, easily found in a variety of vegetables and nuts. Still, there’s a chance that early humans got some of their magnesium from seaweeds, which are an excellent source. Magnesium is key for storing new bits of information in the neural networks of the brain.
  • Zinc. Like magnesium, zinc is found in several foods but meat (and especially the liver) is a great source of zinc. It’s also extremely abundant in oysters, crustaceans, and seaweeds. Also like magnesium, zinc is important in memory development.
  • Poly-unsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Certainly one of the most interesting nutrients on this list, PUFAs were thought to be obtained by early humans from fish and shellfish, but this study proposes seaweeds as an alternative source.
  • Iodine. Today, we get a lot of iodine from salt artificially enriched in the element — and that’s a good thing because iodine is crucial for the proper functioning of the thyroid hormones. But seaweeds also contain great amounts of iodine.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to prove whether or not our ancestors ate seaweeds or not — though this study makes a convincing case that they very well might have — but perhaps the more important takeaway is for the present, not for the past. Seaweeds are an excellent source of nutrients, especially if you don’t want to consume meat. With an ever-growing population and a struggling agriculture, they might pop up more and more on our plates.

Journal Reference: M. Lynn Cornish, Alan T. Critchley, Ole G. Mouritsen. Consumption of seaweeds and the human brain. Journal of Applied Phycology, 2017; DOI: 10.1007/s10811-016-1049-3

 

Lichens actually comprise a threesome, not a partnership

When the nature of lichens was discovered 140 years ago, they became the most prominent example of symbiosis, a term that defines a mutually beneficial relationship between two dissimilar organisms.

Image credit Pixabay

Image credit Pixabay

In the case of lichen, the filaments of a single fungus create protection for photosynthetic algae or cyanobacteria, which provide food for the fungus in return. However, a new study reveals that there is actually a third organism involved in this relationship – a yeast that likely provides the structure for “leafy” or “branching lichens.”

“These yeast are sort of hidden just below the surface,” said John McCutcheon, a genome biologist at the University of Montana, and senior author of the study. “People had probably seen these cells before and thought they were seeing something else. But the molecular techniques we used happened to be especially good for spotting the signal of a separate organism, and after years of looking at the data it finally occurred to us what we were seeing.”

McCutcheon’s team made the discovery after studying two lichen species obtained from Missoula, Montana mountains – Bryoria fremontii and B. tortuosa. Despite B. tortuosa possessing a yellow color due to the presence of vulpinic acid, genetic tests revealed identical fungus and alga in both species. However, they also discovered the genetic signature of a third species – a basidiomycete yeast – in both species, although it was more abundant in B. tortuosa.

Additional testing of 56 different lichens from around the world revealed that each one has its own variety of basidiomycete yeast, suggesting that lichens actually comprise a threesome, not a couple, essentially rewriting 150 years of biology.

The team believes that this newly discovered yeast could play a role in creating the large structures seen in macrolichens, which would explain why these particular lichens are hard to grow in the lab when using just a fungus and alga.

“This doesn’t prove that they’re necessary to create the structure of the macrolichens, or that they do anything else for that matter,” McCutcheon said. “But its early days. It took a lot of work just to discover that they were there. We’re interested if the yeast is making these important compounds, or possibly enabling the other fungus to make them. We don’t know, but it’s the obvious next question.”

Journal Reference: Basidiomycete yeasts in the cortex of ascomycete macrolichens. 21 July 2016. 10.1126/science.aaf8287

Florida’s coastlines are choke-full with guacamole-like algae blooms

algae bloom

Credit: Flickr user eutrophication&hypoxia

South Florida’s coasts are being choked by smelly, green algae blooms after excess water from Lake Okeechobee was released into the ocean. The lake has been contaminated with unprecedented levels of toxins after the government pumped polluted runoff into it to curb flooding in the area. Residents blame the federal government, state water managers and Florida Gov. Rick Scott for yet another spiraling environmental catastrophe.

First sightings of the blooms were reported in June, and since then they’ve been spreading — prompting the state of Florida to declare a state of emergency for Martin and St. Lucie counties on Wednesday, extended to Palm Beach and Lee counties on the western coast on Tuesday. The algae have given south Florida residents rashes and coughs and are consuming all the oxygen in the water, threatening the bio-diverse area. The scale of the blooms makes them look like oil spills on aerial photographs — only greener, and gooier.

“This is our Deep Water Horizon,” Doug Smith, a commissioner in Martin County, told the Palm Beach Post, referencing the devastating BP oil spill in 2010.

The blooms have grown to huge proportions. Martin, St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties alone stretch for nearly 100 miles along the Atlantic coast, so how did the algae grow so fast? These counties, along with Lee County are all connected through various rivers, canals or estuaries to the state’s largest body of fresh water, Lake Okeechobee.

And this lake seems to be the cause. In the wake of a year with heavy rainfall — enough to cover the city of Delaware in two feet of water — the government was forced to “back-pump” billions of gallons of polluted runoff into the lake to save crops and prevent further flooding. As Lake Okeechobee began to overflow, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumped the excess water into the waterways that connect the lake with the coast to protect the neighbouring towns from life-threatening flooding.

But then Lake Okeechobee began to overflow as well, forcing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency charged with monitoring water levels, to make a tough decision. It could open a series of levees surrounding the lake and dump the excess water into rivers and estuaries that lead to the coast, or it could let the lake continue to rise, putting thousands of people and the towns they live in at risk for life-threatening flooding.

The mineral-rich waters of the lake allowed the algae to bloom uncontrollably, and now the area’s ecosystems are buckling under their weight. In the Executive Order he issued Thursday to declare a state of emergency, governor Rick Scott blamed the federal government for the crisis.

The lake is surrounded by the Herbert Hoover Dike, a wall of natural materials like soil, rock and shells, that has fallen into disrepair. It was designed for a water level of 18 feet above sea level but to prevent a breach, the Corps of Engineers tries to maintain the water level between 12.5 and 15.5 feet above sea level, the Washington Post writes.

“[Had funding been provided] the Corps would not have been required to discharge approximately 30 billion gallons of flood waters from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers and estuaries,” the governor said in his executive order.

But as he has yet to visit the area himself, residents are blaming the governor and his administration for not doing enough to solve the problem. Together with Martin County commissioners, they’ve called on the Corps of Engineers to reduce the flow of water it has been pumping out of Lake Okeechobee, and recently gained support from Florida senators. The Corps announced it would begin a “pulse release” that will reduce output levels.

“… After visiting with local elected officials in Martin County yesterday and viewing the algae first hand, we felt compelled to take action, even though we need to remain vigilant in managing the level of Lake Okeechobee,” Col. Jason Kirk, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District Commander, said in a press release.

Following a visit in the area this week, Sen. Nelson said the issue shouldn’t fall just on the shoulders of the federal government. He called on the state legislature to spend money on environmental projects already approved by Florida voters, reported the WP, including the purchase of land surrounding Lake Okeechobee for water storage instead of diverting funds to pay for administrative costs.

I would urge everyone to remember that the first priority shouldn’t be to decide who’s at fault for this situation, but figuring out how to go about fixing it. There’s enough time for finger pointing after the ocean stops looking like chunky guacamole.

 

Climate change is making the Arctic red — and we should be very worried about it

You’ve heard of yellow snow, but there is another shade you should fear even more: called pink, red or watermelon snow, researchers warn that this phenomenon is a worrying testament of drastic melting in the Arctic.

Red snow algae.
Image credits Iwona Erskine-Kellie.

Red snow isn’t new. The phenomenon was observed by the first arctic explorers, and it was initially believed to be caused by iron oxides permeating the snow. Since then, however, it has been established that the hue is a product of red algae that bloom in frozen water. A new study published in the journal Nature Communications shows that these blooms are causing the snow to melt faster and they’re only going to grow more rapidly as climate change causes Arctic snow to melt more.

One property of snow is high albedo, meaning it reflects a large proportion of incoming light instead of absorbing it as heat. The study found that over a 100-day period, the algae-rich snow has a 13% lower albedo than white snow. The catch is that while these algae bloom naturally, man-made global warming puts them on a positive feedback loop — higher average temperatures mean more snow is melting each year, providing the water that algae feed on, which in turn cause the snow to melt.

“As we infer from our data, melting is one major driver for snow algal growth,” the study notes. “Extreme melt events like that in 2012, when 97% of the entire Greenland Ice Sheet was affected by surface melting, are likely to re-occur with increasing frequency in the near future as a consequence of global warming. Moreover, such extreme melting events are likely to even further intensify the effect of snow algae on surface albedo, and in turn melting rates.”

That’s because the glacier melt, disproportionately driven by the rise in global temperatures, is effectively watering the red algae, says lead study author Steffi Lutz of the University of Leeds.

“The algae need liquid water in order to bloom,” she said. “Therefore the melting of snow and ice surfaces controls the abundance of the algae. The more melting, the more algae. With temperatures rising globally, the snow algae phenomenon will likely also increase leading to an even higher bio-albedo effect.”

As temperatures continue to rise, the Artic will keep taking on a bloody shade. Maybe it’s allergic to climate change.

Science delivers: new seaweed tastes like bacon, healthier than kale

Seaweed can nowadays be used as fuel and as oddly-green-but-awesome streetlamps that also scrub the air of CO2. Is there anything that it can’t do? I’m willing to bet good money (i’m a writer, “good” here is used loosely to mean a few pieces of change and an empty bubble-gum wrapper) that it won’t ever taste as good as say…Bacon.

“There hasn’t been a lot of interest in using it in a fresh form. But this stuff is pretty amazing,” said chief researcher Chris Langdon. “When you fry it, which I have done, it tastes like bacon, not seaweed. And it’s a pretty strong bacon flavor.”

“…a pretty strong bacon flavour”, has science gone too far? Or not far enough?
Image via cbsnews

Vegans everywhere rejoice, as researchers from Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center say they’ve created and patented a new type of seaweed that has the potential to be sold commercially as the next big superfood.

The unexpectedly delicious new creation is actually a new strain of red marine algae named dulse. It’s packed full of minerals and proteins, it’s low in calories, and it looks a bit like red lettuce. The team claims it’s better for you than kale:

“Dulse is a superfood, with twice the nutritional value of kale,” said Chuck Toombs, a faculty member in OSU’s College of Business and a member of the team working to develop the product into a foodstuff. “And OSU had developed this variety that can be farmed, with the potential for a new industry for Oregon.”

Dulse normally grows in the wild along the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines and is harvested, dried and sold as a cooking ingredient or nutritional supplement. The team began researching ways of farming the new strain of dulse to feed abalone, but they quickly realized its potential to do well on our plate after chief researcher Chris Langdon fried some of his reaseach material of the seaweed and ate it.

They’ve received a grant from the Oregon Department of Agriculture to explore dulse as a “special crop” and are working with the university’s Food Innovation Center in Portland and several chefs to find out ways dulse could be used as a main ingredient.

Though there is currently no commercial operation that grows dulse for human consumption in the U.S., the team is confident the seaweed superfood could make it big. Not only can you steer your health in the right direction by including it in your meals, but it tastes like one of America’s favorite foods.

So if you’re yearning for some healthy underwater bacon with all the flavour but none of the problems, an adventurer curious to try new foods, vegan yourself or cooking for that special vegan someone you hold dear, get your hands on some dulse and enjoy!

Check out some photos of the new pork-free bacon:

Looks bacon-y even when raw!
Image via wisegeek

And even bacon-yer when cooked!
Image via: mirror.co.uk

Dulse-Sunflower bread. Bacon flavoured bread for your BACON SANDWITCHES yes please.
Image via meghantelpner.com

Image via livet.tv

Biologists find algal embryo that “turned itself inside out”

Researchers from Cambridge have, for the first time, captured a 3D video of a living algal embryo turning itself inside out: from a sphere into a mushroom and into a sphere again. The results could help us better understand the process of gastrulation in animal embryos — which biologist Lewis Wolpert called “the most important event in your life.”

Biologists were studying the embryos of a green algae called Volvox, that forms spherical colonies of up to 50,000 cells. They live in a variety of freshwater habitats and interestingly, they demonstrated both individuality and working for the good of their colony, acting like one multicellular organism.

Using fluorescent microscopy, scientists were able to test a mathematical model of morphogenesis — the origin and development of an organism’s structure and form — and see how it behaves when it turns itself from a sphere to a mushroom shape and then back again.

Credit: Stephanie Höhn, Aurelia Honerkamp-Smith and Raymond E. Goldstein

The process is important not only for algae, but also for animals, as it is very similar to a process called gastrulation – a phase early in the embryonic development of most animals, during which the single-layered blastula is reorganized into a trilaminar (“three-layered”) structure known as the gastrula. Gastrulation is the result of complex cellular interactions, which makes it extremely difficult to quantify and understand in terms of raw numbers.

“Until now there was no quantitative mechanical understanding of whether those changes were sufficient to account for the observed embryo shapes, and existing studies by conventional microscopy were limited to two-dimensional sections and analyses of chemically fixed embryos, rendering comparisons with theory on the dynamics difficult,” said Professor Raymond E. Goldstein of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, who led the research.

Now is the first time scientists have been able to capture this process in 3D, which will also aid them in understanding gastrulation.

Volvox is a genus of chlorophytes, a type of green algae. Image via Wikipedia.

“It’s exciting to be able to finally visualise this intriguing process in 3D,” said Dr Stephanie Höhn, the paper’s lead author. “This simple organism may provide ground-breaking information to help us understand similar processes in many different types of animals.”

Journal Reference: Stephanie Höhn, Aurelia R. Honerkamp-Smith, Pierre A. Haas, Philipp Khuc Trong, and Raymond E. Goldstein. Phys. Rev. Lett. 114, 178101 – Published 27 April 2015 [Link]

 

Extraordinary Macro Timelapse of Aquatic Wildlife by Sandro Bocci

We’ve shared many time lapse videos, but this is definitely something else. The almost alien music, the stunning quality, and the surreal underwater environment is entrancing and takes you to another world. This is part of an upcoming non-speaking Italian film – “Porgrave”. This latest film by Sandro Bocci, will be released in late 2015. This is Meanwhile…:

The section depicts beautiful macro timelapses of coral, sponges and other aquatic wildlife filmed under ultraviolet light. The video’s purpose is to not only share mystery of the aquatic world, but also to send a message that we should take better care of the beautiful world we live in.

Images and editing: Sandro Bocci

Original Music: Maurizio Morganti

Featured: Protoreaster linckii, Scolymia , Fungia, Trachyphyllia, Symphyllia, Euphyllia divisa wilde, Zoas mix, Alien eye zoas, Tridacna maxima.

Pollution Sparks Beautiful Blue Plankton Glow in Hong Kong

The harbor in Hong Kong sparkled with an eerie blue glow, painting a surprising and beautiful picture. But few people know that the cause of this lovely landscape is actually pollution – pig manure, fertiliser and sewage. This nutrient-rich pollution encouraged a bloom of Noctiluca scintillans, commonly known as “Sea Sparkle.”

Long exposure image of bioluminescence of N. scintillans in the yacht port of Zeebrugge, Belgium. Photo by Hans Hillewaert

They may look like algae, but Noctiluca scintillans is actually plankton. Unable to photosynthesize, they feed on algae in many marine environments across the world. This phytoplankton is not considered dangerous and is fairly common in and around Hong Kong. When the water is still, you couldn’t even tell that it’s there, but when the water is disturbed, it starts to emit this blue light. Local photographer Lit Wai Kwong took some lovely pictures:

“You can see the blue light if there is a wave, a boat moving, or a stone thrown in the water,” said Kwong, who used a 30-second exposure to get the shot. There was no blue light when the water was calm, therefore many people threw stones into the water in order to see it.”

But despite its beauty, this bloom indicates a significant danger. While the plankton is not toxic in itself, it blooms when there is significant runoff in the water. So it’s a sign that there is great pollution in the area.

“The plankton and Noctiluca become more abundant when nitrogen and phosphorous from farm run-off increase,” Borenstein wrote, “Noctiluca’srole as both prey and predator can eventually magnify the accumulation of algae toxins in the food chain.”

Indeed, Noctiluca can also deplete the oxygen of water, causing significant environmental damage and potentially wiping out the water’s other inhabitants. In the Arabian Sea there is an area about the size of Texas blooming with this plankton, and not much else can live in those waters. If water pollution continues, the same might happen in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong and the entire Pearl River Delta has a big problem with wastewater, and that is surely a factor with these plankton blooms,” said David Baker from the Swire Institute of Marine Science at the University of Hong Kong.  “I guess the analogy is they’re like locusts that feed on agricultural crops. And once they find a good abundant food source they will multiply until the food source is exhausted. In Hong Kong unfortunately most of the nutrients are coming from our own sewage.”

The bloom’s end is actually the most dangerous part. As the tiny organisms perish, they sink to the bottom of the sea, decomposing and consuming huge quantities of oxygen.

“That’s when we have the formation of these dead zones, where anything that’s living, any fish or crab species living on the bottom, is at risk of dying from the low oxygen associated with that decomposition,” Baker said.

After something happens, it’s very difficult for the wildlife to bounce back.