Conference catch-up: The many colors of snow

Red snow … watermelon snow … green snow … did you know that snow came in so many different colors?

I had never heard of watermelon ice (#🍉❄) until a talk given by Robin Kodner from Western Washington University at the Phycological Society of America meeting in Monterey in 2017. We both gave talks in the last session of the meeting. We chatted at the end of the session, a chance conversation that led to a collaboration that led to Potsdam, Germany and the 2nd Snow Algae Meeting.

I’ll confess I felt a little bit self conscious presenting life cycle theory when I have not seen a snow alga in person (or in situ), let alone worked on them yet (several grant applications didn’t quite reach the summit, pun intended), but the organizers and all participants were incredibly gracious. Though I was suffering from the worst jet lag I’ve ever experienced, this meeting was motivating and exciting, as well as incredibly welcoming to a #🍉❄ novice.

So … what are snow algae? And, why did about 25 people congregate in Potsdam to talk about them?

Red snows occur worldwide during the melt season. The patches that can be red, pink, green, or yellow (all composed of different dominant algal species) and are composed of single-celled algae related to the lab rat Chlamydomonas. These patches are composed of more than just algae, including fungi and bacteria. Snow algae are incredibly important in alpine and glacial habitats. They lower albedo and increase melting. Despite their importance, we don’t understand much about their ecology or evolution. Or, surprise from this TME contributor, gene flow.

The workshop/meeting started off with a talk by Ron Hoham in which he gave an overview of his career. He went to the University of Washington to study macroalgae, but on a hike with a fellow student, he saw snow algae. The rest, as they say, is history.

He detailed what we know of snow algal life cycles and mating system variation. Basically, we’re kindred spirits!

We then had moderated sessions on taxonomy and field studies in which the take home message was that we have a lot to learn about the ecological and functional role of these single celled algae.

We also learned about Robin Kodner’s citizen science work with the Living Snow Project. People of all ages can participate in science while being in the great outdoors by sampling patches of red snow and then shipping their Falcon tubes off to the Kodner Lab.

living_snow_project on Instagram.

The next day we talked about field studies, genetics and taxonomy, genomics, transcriptomics, and biotechnology.

We even spent time thinking about niche differentiation and life cycles during a coffee break.

Niche differentiation … Snickers are a better niche than menthol mints. © R Kodner

We, then, wrote out ways to collaborate, standardizing protocols, and generally where to go from here. 

SAM2018 participants. © Thomas Leya

Thomas Leya, one of the organizers, took us on a tour of the Culture Collection of Cryophilic Algae.

Snow algae in culture at the Culture Collection of Cryophilic Algae in Potsdam, Germany. © SA Krueger-Hadfield
Glass snow algal ornaments at the Culture Collection of Cryophilic Algae in Potsdam, Germany. © SA Krueger-Hadfield

On our tour, we learned about snow algae and aging … you might just keep the wrinkles at bay!

Ingredients in La Prairie cosmetics

The two days were great for bouncing ideas around and meeting the community of scientists working on these organisms. For me personally, it was a time to connect with colleagues that I only knew through email and grant writing, but also finding a collaborative group of people with shared interests. I look forward to SAM2020!

After the workshop, the Kodner and Krueger-Hadfield labs went on a whirlwind tour of Berlin, so it wasn’t all work and no play!

Snow algal exuberance in the U-Bahn. © SA Krueger-Hadfield
A flea market near Tiergarten.  ©SA Krueger-Hadfield

Thank you to the organizers, especially Thomas Leya, Liane Benning, and Stefanie Lutz, as well as all the meeting participants.

And, don’t forget, snow algae were first described by Bauer in 1819, and in 2019, snow algae will be the German Phycological Society’s Alga of the Year. Maybe we should do this too, Phycological Society of America?

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