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Ann Bot. 2014 Jul;114(1):17-33. doi: 10.1093/aob/mcu085.

Ecophysiology of gelatinous Nostoc colonies: unprecedented slow growth and survival in resource-poor and harsh environments.

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Freshwater Biological Laboratory, Biological Institute, University of Copenhagen, Universitetsparken 4, 2100 Copenhagen, Denmark



The cyanobacterial genus Nostoc includes several species forming centimetre-large gelatinous colonies in nutrient-poor freshwaters and harsh semi-terrestrial environments with extended drought or freezing. These Nostoc species have filaments with normal photosynthetic cells and N2-fixing heterocysts embedded in an extensive gelatinous matrix of polysaccharides and many other organic substances providing biological and environmental protection. Large colony size imposes constraints on the use of external resources and the gelatinous matrix represents extra costs and reduced growth rates.


The objective of this review is to evaluate the mechanisms behind the low rates of growth and mortality, protection against environmental hazards and the persistence and longevity of gelatinous Nostoc colonies, and their ability to economize with highly limiting resources.


Simple models predict the decline in uptake of dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) and a decline in the growth rate of spherical freshwater colonies of N. pruniforme and N. zetterstedtii and sheet-like colonies of N. commune in response to a thicker diffusion boundary layer, lower external DIC concentration and higher organic carbon mass per surface area (CMA) of the colony. Measured growth rates of N. commune and N. pruniforme at high DIC availability comply with general empirical predictions of maximum growth rate (i.e. doubling time 10-14 d) as functions of CMA for marine macroalgae and as functions of tissue thickness for aquatic and terrestrial plants, while extremely low growth rates of N. zetterstedtii (i.e. doubling time 2-3 years) are 10-fold lower than model predictions, either because of very low ambient DIC and/or an extremely costly colony matrix. DIC uptake is limited by diffusion at low concentrations for all species, although they exhibit efficient HCO3(-) uptake, accumulation of respiratory DIC within the colonies and very low CO2 compensation points. Long light paths and light attenuation by structural substances in large Nostoc colonies cause lower quantum efficiency and assimilation number and higher light compensation points than in unicells and other aquatic macrophytes. Extremely low growth and mortality rates of N. zetterstedtii reflect stress-selected adaptation to nutrient- and DIC-poor temperate lakes, while N. pruniforme exhibits a mixed ruderal- and stress-selected strategy with slow growth and year-long survival prevailing in sub-Arctic lakes and faster growth and shorter longevity in temperate lakes. Nostoc commune and its close relative N. flagelliforme have a mixed stress-disturbance strategy not found among higher plants, with stress selection to limiting water and nutrients and disturbance selection in quiescent dry or frozen stages. Despite profound ecological differences between species, active growth of temperate specimens is mostly restricted to the same temperature range (0-35 °C; maximum at 25 °C). Future studies should aim to unravel the processes behind the extreme persistence and low metabolism of Nostoc species under ambient resource supply on sediment and soil surfaces.


Gelatinous colonies; Nostoc commune; Nostoc flagelliforme; Nostoc pruniforme; Nostoc zetterstedtii; carbon concentrating mechanisms; carbon use; cyanobacteria; desiccation tolerance; growth; light use; long-lived; nutrient-poor; photosynthesis; survival

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