Haida Gwaii

The algae near Haida Gwaii, a collection of islands located off the coast of British Columbia, were particularly diverse. Photo: Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca

Algae have long been identified and classified by their physical appearance, such as their color and branching. However, reliance on the form and structure of these organisms has made it challenging to determine diversity and map distribution. Molecular technologies have changed that. As scientists use DNA analysis, they have discovered more diversity among algae than was previously classified.

The authors of an article published in the current issue of Phycologia used DNA barcoding and multigene analysis to study the genetic makeup of several algae species in British Columbia. By studying the DNA of the algae, the researchers discovered greater diversity than was previously thought to exist.

In the current study, Gary Saunders and his team used a multi-step process to gather and then analyze the genetic data. In this case, the team collected specimens, extracted and sequenced their DNA, used barcode analysis to find genetic variation, and ultimately examined the results. Through this process, the researchers discovered a surprising amount of diversity among algal species throughout the Northern Hemisphere and particularly in the northeast Pacific Ocean.

The authors of this study identified 10 species in the red algal genus Ptilota – four more species than they had expected to find in British Columbia. The algae near Haida Gwaii, a collection of islands located off the coast of British Columbia, were particularly diverse: eight of the 10 species were found there, four of which seemed to be native to the area, and two of which have not been found anywhere else in British Columbia.

The results of this study have influenced the way the researchers think about species distribution and diversity. Dr. Saunders concluded that, “Some species are very rare, only one or two collections, so as a first step it would be useful to get a better appreciation of their distribution.” Dr. Saunders also noted that even as data piles up, huge areas remain to be surveyed, and, “It is inevitable that additional rare species will be uncovered as we continue to explore.”

The shallow coastal waters of British Columbia are a hotspot for seaweed biodiversity with many new species having been described in recent decades, especially by Dr. Saunder’s team. The rarity of many of these species and their highly productive habitats make them vulnerable to pollution from industrial development, in particular pollution from the oil and gas industry.

Editor-in-Chief, David Garbary cautions, “While society has raised concerns regarding human impacts on the charismatic marine fish and mammal fauna of the region, we also need to recognize the vulnerability of those species that form the base of these ecosystems – and this base includes the seaweeds. Any oil and gas development must have the integrity of these habitats and their biodiversity as a priority.”

Full text of the article “A molecular-assisted investigation of diversity, biogeography and phylogenetic relationships for species of Neoptilota and Ptilota (Wrangeliaceae, Rhodophyta) reported along Canadian coasts,” Phycologia, Vol. 56, No. 1, 2016, is now available at http://www.phycologia.org/doi/full/10.2216/15-141.1.