Snow algae from the polar regions

Research at the Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology, Branch Bioanalytics and Bioprocesses

The white snow and glacier habitats of the polar and high alpine regions of our planet are not uninhabited. Although usually appearing desert-like to us, reports and collections of snow algae more than 200 years ago already showed that these extreme and persistently cold habitats are populated – among other organisms – by microalgae responsible for the phenomenon of “Red and Green Snow”. These are not red algae, but different species of green algae (Chlorophyta), although other taxonomic groups (Zygnematophyceae, Chrysophyceae, Bacillariophyceae, etc.) on snow can also lead to such striking mass developments and often puzzling colouration of the otherwise white snow. In addition to the best known snow algae species Sanguina nivaloides (formerly better known under its old name Chlamydomonas nivalis, but re-described by us in 2019), which was the first to be described, there is an extremely diverse community on snow and glacier fields – much more diverse than originally thought. Some of these snow algae are so strongly adapted to their cold environment that they are called psychrophilic (cold-loving) – they die off at slightly higher temperatures (8-18 °C) and have a clear optimum for growth below 15 °C. In order to be able to study these extremely interesting organisms, their adaptation to a life at 0 °C and below, to continuous light and continuous darkness in the run of the year and, among other things, also to salt stress, there was a lack of public algae collections that made this unusual bioresource available for researchers (a few internal research collections existed it in the U.S.A. and Australia). Thus, as part of the Koldewey 07 expeditions as part of the DFG Priority Program 1158 – Antarctic Research, we began collecting and isolating snow algae and studying their ecology, physiology, phylogeny, taxonomy, and much more. At Fraunhofer IZI-BB the CCCryo biobank makes snow algae strains accessible since 1999, with a growing number of more than 500 strains so far. The CCCryo is now considered to be the most extensive and diverse public collection of snow algae in the world. At the Snow Algae Meeting (SAM), which takes place every 2 years, the international research community regularly exchanges its ideas and initiates new cooperations.

Research questions

  • How diverse is the community of snow algae really?
  • Set-up and institution of a snow algae collection to make pure isolates of snow algae publicly available to the research community
    (see website of CCCryo)
  • What specific adaptations are found (only) in snow algae? What distinguishes them from “normal” algae?
  • Are certain metabolites, proteins or enzymes from snow algae suitable for industrial applications?


  • Collection and isolation of snow and permafrost algae during various SPP 1158 and self-funded expeditions to Svalbard and Antarctica
  • Taxonomic characterization by sequencing of marker genes and phylogenetic analysis
  • Characterization of the isolates with regard to preferred growth temperatures, pigments, fatty acids, EPS (extracellular polysaccharides, jelly), ice-structuring proteins (ISP) and other metabolites

Responsible person

Dr. Thomas Leya, Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology Branch Bioanalytics and Bioprocesses IZI-BB
Extremophile Research & Biobank CCCryo

Projects we participate in

As part of the DFG Priority Program 1158 – Antarctic Research

Koldewey 07 (KOL 07) campaign: 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2010

ANT-Land_05-06 campaign: 2006 research stay in Antarctica at Jubany station – further institute-financed research trips to Svalbard