Field of Science

Gel Weeds

The red algae of the genus Gigartina are a widespread bunch, most diverse in temperate regions of the southern hemisphere but also found on most coasts of the north. They grow as erect thalli that may come in a variety of forms: foliose or dichotomously branched, cylindrical, compressed or flattened (Hommersand et al. 1993). Like other members of the Gigartinaceae, the family to which they belong, growth is multiaxial (the primary growth axes composed of multiple filaments). The inner cortical and medullary cells are rather loosely arranged and separated by a copious matrix (Hommersand et al. 1999).

Pestle weed Gigartina pistillata, copyright Ignacio Bárbara.

Members of the Gigartinaceae have an isomorphic life history with the alternating haploid gametophyte and diploid tetrasporophyte generations being similar in overall appearance. Historically, Gigartina has included some species that were subsequently found to have a heteromorphic life cycle with very different-looking generations (Guiry & West 1983). Despite the similarities in appearance of the gametophytes to true Gigartina, these species are now thought to belong to a distinct family, the Phyllophoraceae. The specific details of Gigartina reproduction are, as with all red algae, obscenely complicated, but it is on the basis of these details that Gigartina is distinguished from related genera (Hommersand et al. 1993). Gigartina gametophytes may be either monoecious (with male and female gametes formed on a single thallus) or dioecious (with separate male and female individuals). The reproductive structures of the gametophytes are formed near the apex of the thallus on distinct branchlets, pinnules or papillae. Again as is typical for red algae, ova are not released but retained on the gametophyte, and their fertilisation results in the growth of a diploid carposporophyte on the parent gametophyte. The carposporophyte then releases diploid spores (carpospores) that are released to give rise to the tetrasporophyte generation. In Gigartina, the carposporophytes are each surrounded by an envelope of secondary filaments. Filaments of the carposporophyte penetrate between the cells of the envelope and fuse with them to form a placenta composed of heterokaryotic cells (with a mix of haploid and diploid nuclei). Carposporangia are produced in grape-like clusters. In the tetrasporophytes, tetrasporangia develop embedded within the thallus at the boundary between the cortex and the medulla. Tetraspores are released when the tetrasporangium as a whole is released by the breakdown of the containing patch of cortex; the resulting holes can leave the tetrasporophyte thallus with a reticulate appearance.

Mature carposporophyte of Gigartina pistillata, from Hommersand et al. (1993).

Economically, Gigartina species are of most interest to humans as a source of long polysaccharides called carrageenans. Carrageenans are characteristic of the Gigartinaceae; other notable carrageenan producers include the well-known Irish moss Chondrus crispus. Though not digestible by humans (they largely past through the digestive tract unaltered), carrageenans are used in food production to thicken and set liquids in a similar manner to gelatin. According to Wikipedia, the use of Gigartina for food production is known as far back as 600 BC in China. In pre-industrial methods, carrageenan can be obtained by boiling cleaned seaweed and then straining the resulting brew. In modern times, carrageenans are used to provide texture to a wide range of products, including dairy products such as ice cream or yoghurt, processed meats or vegetarian meat substitutes, or cosmetic products such as toothpaste or shampoo. It has even been used in paper production: old-style marbled paper was made by floating ink on a mixture including carrageenan. Truly a versatile little compound!


Guiry, M. D., & J. A. West. 1983. Life history and hybridization studies on Gigartina stellata and Petrocelis cruenta (Rhodophyta) in the North Atlantic. Journal of Phycology 19: 474–494.

Hommersand, M. H., S. Fredericq, D. W. Freshwater & J. Hughey. 1999. Recent developments in the systematics of the Gigartinaceae (Gigartinales, Rhodophyta) based on rbcL sequence analysis and morphological evidence. Phycological Research 47: 139–151.

Hommersand, M. H., M. D. Guiry, S. Fredericq & G. L. Leister. 1993. New perspectives in the taxonomy of the Gigartinaceae (Gigartinales, Rhodophyta). Hydrobiologia 260–261: 105–120.

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