Of the approximately 4,000 known species of red algae, nearly all are marine; a few species occur in freshwater. Although red algae are found in all oceans, they are most common in warm-temperate and tropical climates, where they may occur at greater depths than any other photosynthetic organisms. The red algae are multicellular and are characterized by a great deal of branching, but without differentiation into complex tissues. The red algal cell wall has a firm inner layer containing cellulose and a mucilaginous or gelatinous outer layer. Cells may have one or more nuclei, depending on the species. Cell division is by mitosis. The red algae are remarkable in that they are not flagellated; none has motile cells of any kind.
Cells of the Rhodophyta possess chloroplasts that, in addition to the phycobilins, contain chlorophyll a, carotenes, and xanthophylls. At great ocean depths, where the wavelength of light available for photosynthesis is very different from that in shallow water, the phycobilins become more active than the chlorophylls in absorbing light; this fact may explain the ability of red algae to exist at depths of up to 879 ft (268 m). The carbohydrate reserves of red algae are in the form of floridean starch, a specialized glucose polymer of different structure than the starch of plants.
The life cycle of the red algae is extremely complex, involving one haploid phase and two diploid phases. Most marine red algae have soft and delicate bodies, or thalli; however, the coralline algae have thalli that become strongly calcified and contribute significantly to the growth of coral reefs in tropical seas. Because of the permanent nature of the structures that they produce, coralline algae have a rich fossil record that extends back as far as 700 million years. Commercial agar, used as a culture medium for bacteria and other organisms as well as for other purposes, is produced from several genera of red algae. The so-called Irish moss is the source of carrageenin, a substance widely used as a stabilizing agent in emulsions and in ice cream.
See H. C. Bold and M. J. Wynne, Introduction to the Algae: Structure and Reproduction (1985); C. A. Lembi and J. R. Waaland, Algae and Human Affairs (1988); C. van den Hoek, Algae: an Introduction to Phycology (1994).