Aplanospores of Chlamydomonas nivalis are frequently found in high-altitude, persistent snowfields where they are photosynthetically active despite cold temperatures and high levels of visible and ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The goals of this work were to characterize the UV environment of the cells in the snow and to investigate the existence and localization of screening compounds that might prevent UV damage. UV irradiance decreased precipitously in snow, with UV radiation of wavelengths 280–315 nm and UV radiation of wavelengths 315–400 nm dropping to 50% of incident levels in the top 1 and 2 cm, respectively. Isolated cell walls exhibited UV absorbance, possibly by sporopollenin, but this absorbance was weak in images of broken or plasmolyzed cells observed through a UV microscope. The cells also contained UV-absorbing cytoplasmic compounds, with the extrachloroplastic carotenoid astaxanthin providing most of the screening. Additional screening compound(s) soluble in aqueous methanol with an absorption maximum at 335 nm played a minor role. Thus, cells are protected against potentially high levels of UV radiation by the snow itself when they live several centimeters beneath the surface, and they rely on cellular screening compounds, chiefly astaxanthin, when located near the surface where UV fluxes are high.
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Vol. 77 • No. 6