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La vie en rouge

An international consortium of scientist has sequenced the genome of the common red seaweed, Irish moss (Chondrus crispus). With this work we now know much more about how red algae work, how they make their biomolecules, and the evolution of plants and algae. The results was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Walking on a rocky intertidal shore you will see a fascinating landscape often dominated by large algae of different sorts. It is a beautiful environment full of fantastic discoveries including the enigmatic seaweeds. Despite the absence of flowers, colour is not lacking among the algae; the normal colour of grass and herbs is here often replaced with more red and brown than green.

The red colour is provided by the red seaweeds. The red seaweeds are the evolutionary sister group to all green plants and algae and had common ancestor approximately 1,500 million years ago. Compared to the green plants we know very little of red algae, even though according to the secondary endosymbiosis theory, their photosynthetic machinery has been adopted by a majority of the phytoplankton, including diatoms and dinoflagellates.

To learn more about these enigmatic plants biologist Stefan Rensing from the University of Marburg together with an international consortium led by the Station Biologique de Roscoff has analyzed the genome of Chondrus crispus, or Irish moss. The consortium is led by the Station Biologique de Roscoff in Brittany, France, belonging to Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC).

The genome was sequenced and informatically annotated by the French National Sequencing Center, Genoscope. Chondrus is an up to 20 cm typical red seaweed commonly found on rocky shores in the Northern Atlantic. This species has historically been used as one way to make blancmange, a dessert that can be made by boiling Irish moss with milk and sugar. The compound that thickens the milk, carrageenan, is nowadays used in the food industry (E407) in products like ice-cream and pudding. Globally, red algae are used as food and as a source of thickeners and represent a value of over 2,000 million US dollars annually.

What we found when analysing the genome was that the red seaweeds are very different to their green cousins: they have fewer genes than most of their green relatives, the genes are more compact and many genes are not found in the two groups. The sequencing of the genome has helped us to understand the evolution of plants: we propose that the red algae went through a bottleneck in their evolution, loosing many of the genes and reduced their size. Today’s land plants and trees are green; without this bottleneck for the red algae maybe our trees and flowers would have been red...

The genome also helps us to understand how the red algae are related to other organisms, how they live in their environment and how they produce their biomolecules, such as carrageenans, and will greatly accelerate efforts to understand the biology of these fascinating organisms in the coming years.

The Chondrus consortium included laboratories from France, Germany, United Kingdom, Czech Republic, Spain, Egypt, Norway and Greece. Major funding, informatics support and sequencing strategy were provided by the French Genome Center Genoscope.

Reference: Jonas Collén & al.: Genome structure and metabolic features in the red seaweed Chondrus crispus shed light on evolution of the Archaeplastida, PNAS 110 (13)/2013, 5247-5252, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1221259110

Contact person: Professor Dr. Stefan Rensing,
Faculty of Biology

Johannes Scholten | idw
Further information:

Further reports about: Algae Chondrus Genom Genoscope Phytoplankton dinoflagellates green plants red alga

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