Polar algae have a striking ability to photosynthesize and grow under very low light and temperatures. In seaweeds, minimum light demands for photosynthetic saturation and compensation can be as low as 10 and 2 μmol photons m-2 s-1, respectively. For benthic microalgae, these values can be even lower because of the limited irradiance reaching deep sea floors. The extreme shade adaptation of these organisms sets their distributional limits at depths close to 40 m and enables them to tolerate long periods of extended darkness. In addition to their capability for efficient photosynthesis at extremely low light levels, polar algae possess metabolic adaptations to persist at low temperatures, which permit them to complete their life cycles at year-round temperatures close to 0°C. Seaweeds with the lowest temperature demands are the species endemic to the Antarctic while Arctic algae are comparatively less cold-adapted. These adaptive characteristics allow benthic marine algae to make high contributions to high latitude coastal primary productivity and energy fluxes, exceeding or equaling the production of primary producers in more temperate systems. The studies summarized here give important insights into the major physiological adaptations allowing marine benthic microalgae and seaweeds to colonize these extreme habitats.
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