Aquatic Algae See 'Surprisingly' Brilliant Array Of Color Beneath Ocean

By Matthew Mientka on May 4, 2014 2:30 PM EDT

Aquatic algae has unexpected ability to see vast array of colors, researchers say. Photo courtesy o the University of California at Davis, Clark Lagarias.
Aquatic algae has unexpected ability to see vast array of colors, researchers say. Photo courtesy o the University of California at Davis, Clark Lagarias.

On the periphery of human existence, the sun's fiery last light penetrates the deepest reaches of the earth's watery surface — seemingly extinguished. Sliding along that water column as surface conditions rise and fall, the world appears to aquatic algae as a vast array of color unimaginable to the eye.

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In this realm of the ancient leviathan, such microorganisms sense and adapt to changing conditions throughout the world's oceans and lakes. Researcher Clark Lagarias, of the University of California, at Davis, says algae see a surprisingly wide array of light as they adapt to challenges unique to the aquatic environment. Phytochromes allow the microorganism to sense the color, intensity, and quality of light to allow the plant to adapt, says Clark Lagarias, a molecular and cellular biologist at the University of California at Davis.

"They control all aspects of a plant's life," Lagarias said in a press statement, adding that most plants are far less dependent on phytochromes for direction. In a more typical plant with far less sensory ability, approximately 20 percent of the genome is controlled by phytochromes, which use bilin pigments similar in structure to chlorophyll, the molecular structure allows plants to convert light into carbon dioxide and water into sustenance.

Lagarias and his team published a study earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describing the unexpected findings. Long ago in evolutionary history, phytochromes likely emerged from interaction between oxygen and bilins, a molecule similar not only to chlorophyll but to the oxygen-carrying heme pigment in hemoglobin, the biologist says. That ancient emergence of phytochromes in the ocean, leading to the greening of the earth's surface, appears at first highly sensitive to red light on the spectrum, like phytochromes of plants covering the earth's land today. Yet somewhere along the line, aquatic algae developed wider sensory ability unseen now beneath the earth's surface.

"It's a molecule that has been there and back again," Lagarias says of an evolutionary history encapsulating species of algae numbering from 30,000 to a million.

These insights into phytochromes may inform science's understanding of how the sun shapes ecology beneath the water's surface. But they may also help future farmers to raise vast crops not only on land but under the sea.

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