Algae ‘talk to each other’ and could help scientists monitor climate change

[UK] Microalgae communicate with each other under stress, a study has found – and scientists are now listening to them to monitor changes in the aquatic system.

Researchers led by the University of Bath found that a population of diatoms – a type of microalgae – omitted electrical oscillations under darkness.

According to the research, published in the Nature Scientific Reports journal, the cell-to-cell communication is thought to be a reaction or survival mechanism as a result of stress caused by changes in the environment – such as limited light or temperature changes.

The communication is designed to counteract environmental changes and could result in algal blooms – a rapid growth of microscopic algae.

Researchers believe decoding the interactions when the concentration of cells increases at its highest rate could provide an insight into climate change.

Climate change is forcing an increasing in algal blooms.

“Algae are the world’s most important ‘plants’,” said Dr Paulo Rocha, of the University of Bath’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering.

“They play a crucial role in the air we breathe, food we eat and pharmacological drugs we take including for cancer.

“Yet there is only so much we know about these amazing plants. One such reason is because there are no methods to actually decode algae behaviours.

“This project has opened a new page in the understanding of algae signalling and will enable novel sensing technologies to predict the development of algae blooms and of an extensive range of stress-induced alterations in the aquatic ecosystem.”

Scientists were able to record and listen to the microalgae by capturing their electrical interactions. They said what they found showed that diatom communication was co-operative and synchronised.

Algae occur naturally in the majority of fresh and salt water environments but the researchers says climate change is forcing an increase in algal blooms.

Thick blooms can even block sunlight and reduce oxygen levels in the water, making it harder for fish and other living organisms to survive.

The scientists warn that some algae produce toxins that can contaminate fish, which are eaten by people, causing damage to the nervous system, eyes and also lung irritation.

“This is an exciting and important discovery,” said Professor Jan Hofman, the director of the Water Innovation and Research Centre at the University of Bath.


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