Skip to main content Skip to navigation

‘Chameleon’ ocean bacteria can shift their colours

  • Bacteria that are crucial to ocean life can shift their colour like chameleons to match different coloured light across the world’s seas – international research involving the University of Warwick has shown
  • Blue light is prevalent in the open ocean, green light in coastal and equatorial waters, and red light in estuaries
  • Synechococcus contain specific genes that enable them to adapt their pigments and photosynthesise in any light quality – turning carbon dioxide into energy that can support other marine life

Cyanobacteria - which propel the ocean engine and help sustain marine life – can shift their colour like chameleons to match different coloured light across the world’s seas, according to research by an international collaboration including the University of Warwick.

ocean bac

The researchers have shown that Synechococcus cyanobacteria – which use light to capture carbon dioxide from the air and produce energy for the marine food chain – contain specific genes which alters their pigmentation depending on the type of light in which they float, allowing them to adapt and thrive in any part of the world’s oceans.

“Blue light is most prevalent in the open oceans, as it penetrates into deep waters – whereas in warm equatorial and coastal waters there is more green light, and in estuaries the light is often red”, explains David Scanlan, who is Professor in Marine Microbiology in the University of Warwick’s School of Life Sciences.

These specific ‘chromatic adaptor’ genes are abundant in ocean dwelling Synechococcus – enabling these colour-shifting microorganisms to change their pigment content in order to survive and photosynthesise in ocean waters, especially when the light quality changes from blue to green.

Professor Scanlan commented on the significance of the research:

Finding Synechococcus cells capable of dynamically changing their pigment content in accordance with the ambient light colour - abundant in ocean ecosystems, making them planktonic ‘chameleons’ - gives us a much deeper understanding of those processes essential to keep the ocean ‘engine’ running.

“This will help improve how we look after our waters – and will allow us to better predict how oceans will react in the future to a changing climate with increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The researchers made their discovery using data from the Tara Oceans expedition – which took seawater samples from ocean waters all over the world.

From this data, Professor Scanlan and colleagues analysed specific gene sequences from Synechococcus in the different samples, identifying particular ‘chromatic adaptor’ genes in bacteria living thousands of miles apart.

This discovery represents a major breakthrough in our understanding of these organisms, which are key primary producers and potentially excellent bio-indicators of climate change.

It was led by the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA)

Notes to editors:

The research, ‘Light color acclimation is a key process in the global ocean distribution of Synechococcus cyanobacteria’, is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It is authored by Théophile Grébert, Hugo Doré, Frédéric Partensky, Gregory K. Farrant, Emmanuel S. Boss, Marc Picheral, Lionel Guidi, Stéphane Pesant, David J. Scanlan, Patrick Wincker, Silvia G. Acinas, David M. Kehoe and Laurence Garczarek.

Image: Various pigment types of Synechococcus cyanobacteria from across the world's oceans, grown in culture at the University of Warwick - credit University of Warwick (click image for high res).

Further information contact:

Luke Walton, International Press Manager

+44 (0) 7824 540 863

+44 (0) 2476 150 868

L dot Walton dot 1 at warwick dot ac dot uk


Full paper in PNAS here.