In a new discovery, a plant species with umbrella like cap has been found in the Island of Andaman & Nicobar. A team of marine biologists from the Central University of Punjab, discovered a new marine algae species in the Andaman archipelago, which has been named Jalakanyaka. The species is also the first of the genus Acetabularia to be discovered in India.
The mermaid species
The new algae species has been named ‘Acetabularia jalakanyakae’, after the Sanskrit word ‘Jalakanyaka’ meaning the ‘goddess of oceans’ or ‘mermaid’. The marine species has been named as an inspiration from Hans Christian Anderson’s fictional character, The Little Mermaid fairy tale.
An accidental discovery
Acetabularia jalakanyakae was accidentally discovered when Dr. Felix Bast, who led the study, was on a family trip to the Island in May 2019. Upon first coming across the species, he took it as a variant of a similar species.
However, after studying the sample for more than one and a half years, a new and unique Acetabularia species was confirmed. It was also the first of its kind on the Island.
The authors used a combined approach, including Scanning Electron Microscopy based morphological assessments combined with DNA sequence-based phylogenetic analyses for describing it as a new species. Also, the paper describing the discovery has been accepted for publication in the Indian Journal of Geo-Marine Sciences published by CSIR.
The green seaweed is very delicate and has an intricate umbrella like design. “The newly discovered alga is so stunning; it has caps with intricate designs as if it were umbrellas of a mermaid” said Dr. Felix Bast.
What is unique about the species is that the whole plant is made up of just one gigantic cell with only one nucleus. A nucleus is where cellular processes of the plant is controlled. Furthermore, a structure called rhizoid is formed towards the end of the plant cell containing its nucleus. This allows the algae to attach to the rocks underneath the shallow tropical ocean, where it grows.
Another feature of Acetabularia is their regenerative potential. For example, if the top part of the algae is cut off, it can regrow the structure.
Significance of the discovery
The discovery of a new algae species is significant in its own. The last time a new algae species was found on the Island was in 1984, i.e, 37 years ago. Algae are the source of more than half of the world’s oxygen though photosynthesis. They turn carbon dioxide into biomass and release oxygen. They play a vital role in the environment.
Andaman & Nicobar Islands is home to some of the last remaining healthy coral reefs in the world. In addition to that, algal diversity is one of the highest in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
Oxygen producers: “Although marine algae produces almost two-third of oxygen in the air we breathe, the world virtually knows nothing about them, highlighting the importance of species discoveries like this,” said Prof. Raghavendra Prasad Tiwari, Vice-Chancellor, Central University of Punjab.
Food producers: Single-celled marine species are key to all the life forms on Earth. Algae converts the atmospheric carbon dioxide into food for the marine ecosystem. They are at the base of the food chain. Also, when the algae dies, they are consumed by organisms called decomposers (mostly fungi and bacteria).
Petroleum fossils: Algae are also responsible for petroleum. When these die, they sink to the ocean floor. Over the years, this layer turns into what we know as petroleum. “Petroleum is essentially fossils of algae; the reason we call it as fossil fuel,” told Dr. Bast to PBNS.
Research & studies: Algae is not only important for the environment, but for studies and research too. The newly discovered species has a giant cell which is important from the studies point of view. The authors of the study said that having such a giant cell is advantageous for molecular biologists who study cellular processes; as they can see it and manipulate it with naked eye. For this reason, Acetabularia is considered a model organism.
Climate change is increasingly becoming a concern, putting in danger the ecology. The rise is temperature decreases oxygen level in the water, affecting organisms that depend on oxygen to live, including the alga. Further, ocean acidification is also a threat to organisms in the ocean. Algae, which has industrial, medical and survival importance, is of key importance, thus, making its discovery further significant.