Vitamin B12 Adaptability in Antarctic Algae Has Implications for Climate Change


Vitamin B12 deficiency in people can cause a slew of health problems and even become fatal. 

Vitamin B12 deficiency in people can cause a slew of health problems and even become fatal. Until now, the same deficiencies were thought to impact certain types of algae, as well.  A new study examined the algae Phaeocystis antarctica’s (P. antarctica) exposure to a matrix of iron and vitamin B12 conditions. Results show that this algae has the ability to survive without B12, something that computer analysis of genome sequences had incorrectly indicated.

The alga, native to the Southern Ocean, starts as a single-cell that can transform into millimeter scale colonies. The research, "Flexible B12 ecophysiology of Phaeocystis antarctica due to a fusion B12-independent methionine synthase with widespread homologues,” conducted by MIT, WHOI, J.C. Venter Institute, and Scripps Institution of Oceanography (UCSD), found that unlike other keystone polar phytoplankton, P. antarctica can survive with or without vitamin B12.

“Vitamin B12 is really important to the algae’s metabolism and because it allows them to make a key amino acid more efficiently,” said Makoto Saito, one of the study’s co-authors and senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). “When you can’t get vitamin B12, life has ways to make those amino acids more slowly, causing them to grow slower as well. In this case, there’s two forms of the enzyme that makes the amino acid methionine, one needing B12, and one that is much slower, but doesn’t need B12. This means P. antarctica has the ability to adapt and survive with low B12 availability.”

Read more at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Image: Researchers conducting a study of P. Antarctica aboard the R/V Palmer in the Ross Sea. (Photo courtesy Makoto Saito, ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)