Red seaweed genome reveals traits of a billion-year-old survivor

17 August 2017

A genetic analysis of a type of edible red seaweed has revealed how it has survived for over a billion years and thrives in harsh conditions, and how the health benefits of this important crop may be improved in the future.

Dr Cheong Xin Chan, from UQ’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience (IMB) was part of a large international research team that sequenced the genome of Porphyra umbilicalis, known colloquially as ‘laver’ or ‘Atlantic nori’.

Porphyra and the related Pyropia (nori) species used in sushi have long been valued for their protein, vitamins and minerals.

Porphyra thrives in one of the most physically stressful habitats on Earth, the intertidal zone, which is the part of the shore that is exposed during low tide and submerged at high tide,” Dr Chan said.

“Organisms that live in this habitat have to be equipped to cope with a range of very different conditions and environmental challenges such as fluctuating temperatures, high UV radiation, salt-stress and dehydration.

“The Porphyra genome provides clues to explain red algae’s mechanisms for coping with the pounding waves, baking sun and drying winds of the intertidal zone, such as synthesis of compounds that act as sunscreens and a unique signalling pathway capable of responding to frequent changes in the environment.”

Red algae are over a billion years old and have survived through numerous changes in climate and mass extinctions.

Dr Chan said the Porphyra genome will guide further research into the molecular mechanisms of desirable traits in seaweed, such as disease resistance and enhanced nutrient content.

“Teasing out the link between these genes and the traits they encode will enable us to breed improved seaweed crops that are resistant against disease and contain more nutrients, bringing both health and economic benefits to humans.”

The multi-institutional research team was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation Research Coordination Network led by Professor Susan Brawley at the University of Maine, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute.

The research was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Dr Chan is part of the UQ Genomics Initiative, a virtual network that catalyses fresh, practical insights into genomics research across multiple disciplines through an integrated alliance across all genomics researchers at UQ.

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