1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Algae/Colouring matters

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By virtue of the possession of chlorophyll all algae are capable of utilizing carbonic acid gas as a source of carbon in the presence of sunlight. The presence of phycocyanin, phycophaein and phycoerythrin considerably modifies theColouring matters. absorption spectra for the plants in which they occur. Thus in the case of phycoerythrin the maximum absorption, apart from the great absorption at the blue end of the spectrum, is not, as in the case where chlorophyll occurs alone, near the Fraunhofer line B, but farther to the right beyond the line D. By an ingenious method devised by Engelmann, it may be shown that the greatest liberation of oxygen, and consequently the greatest assimilation of carbon, occurs in that region of the spectrum represented by the absorption bands. In this connexion Pfeffer points out that the penetrating power of light into a clear sea varies for light of different colours. Thus red light is reduced to such an extent as to be insufficient for growth at a depth of 34 metres, yellow light at a depth of 177 metres and green light at 322 metres. It is thus an obvious advantage to Red Algae, which flourish at considerable depths, to be able to utilize yellow light rather than the red, which is extinguished much sooner. The experiment of Engelmann referred to deserves to be mentioned here, if only in illustration of the use to which algae have been put in the study of physiological problems. Engelmann observed that certain bacteria were motile only in the presence of oxygen, and that they retained their motility in a microscopic preparation in the neighbourhood of an algal filament when they had come to rest elsewhere on account of the exhaustion of oxygen. After the bacteria had all been brought to rest by being placed in the dark, he threw a spectrum upon the filament, and observed in what region the bacteria first regained their motility, owing to the liberation of oxygen in the process of carbon-assimilation. He found that these places corresponded closely with the region of the absorption band for the algae under experiment.

Although algae generally are able to use carbonic acid gas as a source of carbon, some algae, like certain of the higher plants, are capable of utilizing organic compounds for this purpose. Thus Spirogyra filaments, which have been denuded of starch by being placed in the dark, form starch in one day if they are placed in a 10 to 20% solution of dextrose. According to T. Bokorny, moreover, it appears that such filaments will yield starch from formaldehyde when they are supplied with sodium oxymethyl sulphonate, a salt which readily decomposes into formaldehyde and hydrogen sodium sulphite, an observation which has been taken to mean that formaldehyde is always a stage in the synthesis of starch. With reference to the assimilation of nitrogen, it would seem that algae, like other green plants, can best use it when it is presented to them in the form of a nitrate. Some algae, however, seem to flourish better in the presence of organic compounds. In the case of Scenedesmus acutus it is said that the alga is unable to take up nitrogen in the form of a nitrate or ammoniacal salt, and requires some such substance as an amide or a peptone. On the other hand, it has been held by Bernhard Frank and other observers that atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by the agency of Green Algae in the soil. (For the remarkable symbiotism between algae and fungi see Fungi and Lichens.)