Sites in Abu Dhabi where the researchers collected samples of algae. Image credit: Nelson et al. (CC BY 4.0)

How do algae survive in the desert?

Oily molecules similar to palm oil may help a green microalgae to live in hot and dry regions.

Single-celled green algae, also known as green microalgae, play an important role for the world’s ecosystems, in part, because they can harness energy from sunlight to produce carbon-rich compounds. Microalgae are also important for biotechnology and people have harnessed them to make food, fuel and medicines. Green microalgae live in many types of habitats from streams to oceans, and they can also be found on the land, including in deserts. Like plants that live in the desert, these microalgae have likely evolved specific traits that allow them to live in these hot and dry regions. Yet, fewer scientists have studied microalgae compared to land plants, and until now it was not well understood how microalgae could survive in the desert.

David Nelson and colleagues analyzed green microalgae from different locations around the United Arab Emirates and found that one microalga, known as Chloroidium, is one of the most dominant algae in this area. This included samples from beaches, mangroves, desert oases, buildings and public fresh water sources. Chloroidium has a unique set of genes and proteins and grew particularly well in freshwater and saltwater. Rather than just harnessing sunlight, the microalgae were able to consume over 40 different varieties of carbon sources to produce energy. The microalgae also accumulated oily molecules with a similar composition to palm oil, which may help this species to survive in desert regions.

A next step will be to develop biotechnological assets based on the information obtained. In the future, microalgae could be used to make an oil that represents an alternative to palm oil; this would reduce the demand for palm tree plantations, which pose a major threat to the natural environment. Moreover, understanding how microalgae can colonize a desert region will help us to understand the effects of climate change in the region.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “The genome and phenome of the green alga Chloroidium sp.UTEX 3007 reveal adaptive traits for desert acclimatization” (June 17, 2017).
eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
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