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Like bees of the sea, crustaceans ‘pollinate’ seaweed

When it comes to reproduction, one type of red algae gets by with a little help from its friends: small sea crustaceans that transport sex cells between male and female algae, like pollen-laden bees buzzing between flowers.

The discovery is the first known example of animal-driven “pollination” in algae, researchers report in the July 29 Science. Both the red algae and crustaceans belong to far more ancient groups than land plants do, raising the possibility that a form of pollination first evolved in the ocean, hundreds of millions earlier than originally thought.

Pollination typically describes the transfer of male sex cells — pollen — to a female flower, usually on land. Then in 2016, researchers discovered that various marine invertebrates “pollinate” seagrass flowers by feeding on and moving between the gelatinous pollen masses of seagrasses, which are descended from land plants. But nothing similar had yet been documented in algae.

Like other red algae, Gracilaria gracilis doesn’t have free-swimming male sex cells. Called spermatia, its sex cells were typically thought to be dispersed to female algae by the flow of water, much like how wind can spread pollen to fertilize certain land plants.

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