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Snow wonder. Researchers measure gas absorbed by Chlamydomonas during photosynthesis.

Snow Algae Surprise

In cold, hostile stretches of snow that would mean death for most of the worlds' plants, a watermelon red algae has staked out a surprisingly productive existence, scientists say. Further understanding of how the algae thrives in such inhospitable conditions may help scientists engineer hardier crops. The algae may also prove to be a small but significant sink for the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Mountaineers trekking through snow on every continent besides Africa have reported seeing Chlamydomonas nivalis--sometimes called watermelon algae because of its color and faint fruity scent. But few scientists have studied the unusual organism, says plant biologist Thomas Vogelmann of the University of Vermont in Burlington. Lugging equipment into its remote habitat is a hassle, and scientists have not yet succeeded in culturing the algae in the lab.

To find out more about the enigmatic algae, Vogelmann and colleagues headed into the Rocky Mountains. They measured how much carbon dioxide the algae took up and released using a Plexiglass box with sensors. They found that rich patches of the algae took up carbon dioxide at about 10% the rate of an average green plant--far more than expected, the team reports online 7 January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"What was surprising was that the algae was as active as it was," says ecologist Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Stanford, California. "It basically shows that you can have active, interesting, productive communities under extreme conditions." The next step is to learn more about how the algae cope with low temperatures and extremely bright light, Vogelmann says. His team eventually hopes to pair more detailed estimates of how much carbon the algae sucks up with satellite data estimating its distribution, thus seeing if it plays a substantial part in the cycling of carbon dioxide.

Related sites
Information about and images of the snow algae
Thomas Vogelmann's home page
Chris Field's home page