Skip directly to content

The algae pigment shuffle

NSF Award:

NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship in Biology FY 2011  (Mackey Katherine R)

Congressional Districts:
Research Areas:

Diverse strains of Synechococcus algae reshuffle their pigments to achieve photosynthesis at different temperatures. Researchers discovered this fact by comparing algae cultures from around the world. This finding could explain why Synechococcus thrive in warm and cold habitats, and may give them a competitive edge in regions with strong seasonal temperature variations.

Studying the influence of temperature on photosynthesis could provide an explanation regarding the global distributions of photosynthetic organisms from algae to land plants, illuminate why we observe specific photosynthetic characteristics in different environments, and close some of the knowledge gaps about how temperature drives the evolution of photosynthesis in nature.

Picocyanobacteria are the most abundant photosynthetic organisms on Earth and produce one-third of the oxygen we breathe. Synechococcus are one kind of picocyanobacteria found from the equator to the polar circle. They have unique, mobile pigments that impart striking colors to different strains ranging from green to orange to pink. By changing the organization of these pigments within the cell, Synechococcus can fine tune photosynthesis.

This temperature study involved collaboration between biologists, geochemists and climate scientists. The study used chlorophyll fluorescence and cell protein content to show that pigment movement changes with temperature and helps control the partitioning of light between different photosynthetic proteins. This attribute could explain Synechococcus's broad geographic distribution and could affect how these cells respond to global warming in the future.

The research was published inĀ Plant Physiology.

Images (1 of )

  • synechococcus strains display an array of pigment combinations
  • synechococcus strains vary their pigments depending on temperature
Synechococcus algae vary their color depending on temperature.
Katherine Mackey, WHOI, MBL
Color changes help Synechococcus algae adapt to warm and cold habitats.
Katherine Mackey, WHOI, MBL

Recent Award Highlights

calcifying corals growing in low pH conditions are more sensitive to erosion

Discovering how coral reefs respond to acid oceans

Corals in naturally acidified reefs experience slow growth and decreased density

Research Areas: Earth & Environment, Biology Locations: California Massachusetts International
molecular dynamics simulations show the flexibility of sites critical to control of genetic information

Simulating protein motion leads to drug discovery

Visualizing atomic motion in proteins helps researchers develop disease therapies

Research Areas: Biology Locations: California