Algae - Classification


While cyanobacteria have been traditionally considered algae, recent works usually exclude them due to large differences such as the lack of membrane-bound organelles, the presence of a single circular chromosome, the presence of peptidoglycan in the cell walls, and ribosomes different in size and content from those of the Eukaryotes. Rather than in chloroplasts, they conduct photosynthesis on specialized infolded cytoplasmic membranes called thylakoid membranes. Therefore, they differ significantly from algae despite occupying similar ecological niches.

By modern definitions, algae are Eukaryotes and conduct photosynthesis within membrane-bound organelles called chloroplasts. Chloroplasts contain circular DNA and are similar in structure to cyanobacteria, presumably representing reduced cyanobacterial endosymbionts. The exact nature of the chloroplasts is different among separate lineages of algae, reflecting different endosymbiotic events. The table below describes the composition of the three major groups of algae. Their lineage relationships are shown in the figure in the upper right. Many of these groups contain some members that are no longer photosynthetic. Some retain plastids, but not chloroplasts, while others have lost plastids entirely.

Phylogeny based on plastid not nucleocytoplasmic genealogy:












Higher plants (Embryophyta)


Supergroup affiliation Members Endosymbiont Summary
  • Chlorophyta
  • Rhodophyta
  • Glaucophyta
Cyanobacteria These algae have primary chloroplasts, i.e. the chloroplasts are surrounded by two membranes and probably developed through a single endosymbiotic event. The chloroplasts of red algae have chlorophylls a and c (often), and phycobilins, while those of green algae have chloroplasts with chlorophyll a and b. Higher plants are pigmented similarly to green algae and probably developed from them, and thus Chlorophyta is a sister taxon to the plants; sometimes they are grouped as Viridiplantae.
Excavata and Rhizaria
  • Chlorarachniophytes
  • Euglenids
Green algae

These groups have green chloroplasts containing chlorophylls a and b. Their chloroplasts are surrounded by four and three membranes, respectively, and were probably retained from ingested green algae.

Chlorarachniophytes, which belong to the phylum Cercozoa, contain a small nucleomorph, which is a relict of the algae's nucleus.

Euglenids, which belong to the phylum Euglenozoa, live primarily in freshwater and have chloroplasts with only three membranes. It has been suggested that the endosymbiotic green algae were acquired through myzocytosis rather than phagocytosis.

Chromista and Alveolata
  • Heterokonts
  • Haptophyta
  • Cryptomonads
  • Dinoflagellates
Red algae

These groups have chloroplasts containing chlorophylls a and c, and phycobilins.The shape varies from plant to plant. they may be of discoid, plate-like, reticulate, cup-shaped, spiral or ribbon shaped. They have one or more pyrenoids to preserve protein and starch. The latter chlorophyll type is not known from any prokaryotes or primary chloroplasts, but genetic similarities with red algae suggest a relationship there.

In the first three of these groups (Chromista), the chloroplast has four membranes, retaining a nucleomorph in Cryptomonads, and they likely share a common pigmented ancestor, although other evidence casts doubt on whether the Heterokonts, Haptophyta, and Cryptomonads are in fact more closely related to each other than to other groups.

The typical dinoflagellate chloroplast has three membranes, but there is considerable diversity in chloroplasts within the group, and it appears there were a number of endosymbiotic events. The Apicomplexa, a group of closely related parasites, also have plastids called apicoplasts. Apicoplasts are not photosynthetic but appear to have a common origin with Dinoflagellate chloroplasts.

W.H.Harvey (1811—1866) was the first to divide algae into four divisions based on their pigmentation. This is the first use of a biochemical criterion in plant systematics. Harvey's four divisions are: red algae (Rhodophyta), brown algae (Heteromontophyta), green algae (Chlorophyta) and Diatomaceae.

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