Extremophilic red algae as models for understanding adaptation to hostile environments and the evolution of eukaryotic life on the early earth

Julia Van Etten, Chung Hyun Cho, Hwan Su Yoon, Debashish Bhattacharya

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Extremophiles have always garnered great interest because of their exotic lifestyles and ability to thrive at the physical limits of life. In hot springs environments, the Cyanidiophyceae red algae are the only photosynthetic eukaryotes able to live under extremely low pH (0−5) and relatively high temperature (35ºC to 63ºC). These extremophiles live as biofilms in the springs, inhabit acid soils near the hot springs, and form endolithic populations in the surrounding rocks. Cyanidiophyceae represent a remarkable source of knowledge about the evolution of extremophilic lifestyles and their genomes encode specialized enzymes that have applied uses. Here we review the evolutionary origin, taxonomy, genome biology, industrial applications, and use of Cyanidiophyceae as genetic models. Currently, Cyanidiophyceae comprise a single order (Cyanidiales), three families, four genera, and nine species, including the well-known Cyanidioschyzon merolae and Galdieria sulphuraria. These algae have small, gene-rich genomes that are analogous to those of prokaryotes they live and compete with. There are few spliceosomal introns and evidence exists for horizontal gene transfer as a driver of local adaptation to gain access to external fixed carbon and to extrude toxic metals. Cyanidiophyceae offer a variety of commercial opportunities such as phytoremediation to detoxify contaminated soils or waters and exploitation of their mixotrophic lifestyles to support the efficient production of bioproducts such as phycocyanin and floridosides. In terms of exobiology, Cyanidiophyceae are an ideal model system for understanding the evolutionary effects of foreign gene acquisition and the interactions between different organisms inhabiting the same harsh environment on the early Earth. Finally, we describe ongoing research with C. merolae genetics and summarize the unique insights they offer to the understanding of algal biology and evolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4-13
Number of pages10
JournalSeminars in Cell and Developmental Biology
StatePublished - Jan 30 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental Biology
  • Cell Biology


  • Cyanidiophyceae
  • Early Earth
  • Genome evolution
  • Genome reduction
  • Horizontal gene transfer
  • Polyextremophily
  • Red algae


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