A recent study conductedthe University of East Anglia has revealed that eukaryotic phytoplankton, also known as microalgae, have developed adaptive mechanisms to cope with nutrient starvation causedclimate change. This finding holds potential for biotechnology applications that can mitigate the negative impacts of changing environmental conditions, such as ocean warming and reduced crop productivity.
Microalgae play a crucial role in the marine food chain, serving as the foundation for a vast ecosystem that includes krill, fish, penguins, and whales. Additionally, they help absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce oxygen. However, the growth of microalgae is hinderedthe scarcity of iron in approximately 35% of the ocean’s surface. As global warming reduces nutrient levels in the surface water layers, microalgae are expected to experience starvation and produce less food, resulting in decreased carbon dioxide absorption.
The research team ledProf Thomas Mock discovered that microalgae have evolved an additional cellular machinery that allows them to thrive in nutrient-poor conditionsusing sunlight for growth without relying on iron. Instead of traditional photosynthesis, microalgae utilize a light-responsive membrane protein called rhodopsin, which resembles the photopigments found in human eyes. These proteins pump protons through membranes, enabling the synthesis of ATP, the energy currency of all cells. This adaptation enables microalgae to continue thriving in nutrient-depleted surface oceans, suggesting their ability to withstand the effects of global warming.
This discovery has significant implications beyond the marine ecosystem. The ability of microalgae to adapt to nutrient starvation could be leveraged to enhance crop productivity and biotechnological processes. By modifying other organisms—such as yeast—to utilize light for growth, biotechnology applications can be expanded, including the production of insulin, antibiotics, enzymes, antivirals, and biofuels.
The study’s findings are particularly relevant for the Southern Ocean, which is home to the largest iron-limited aquatic ecosystem and supports abundant populations of microalgae consumers. Prof Mock emphasizes the critical role of oceans in supporting human and environmental survival, making this research significant for the future.
– Nature Microbiology (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41564-023-01498-5
– University of East Anglia
– “Climate change coping mechanism discovered in algae” – Phys.org (October 16, 2023)