A polarographic oxygen determination, with tissue in direct contact with a stationary platinum electrode, has been used to measure the photosynthetic response of marine algae. These were exposed to monochromatic light, of equal energy, at some 35 points through the visible spectrum (derived from a monochromator). Ulva and Monostroma (green algae) show action spectra which correspond very closely to their absorption spectra. Coilodesme (a brown alga) shows almost as good correspondence, including the spectral region absorbed by the carotenoid, fucoxanthin. In green and brown algae, light absorbed by both chlorophyll and carotenoids seems photosynthetically effective, although some inactive absorption by carotenoids is indicated.
Action spectra for a wide variety of red algae, however, show marked deviations from their corresponding absorption spectra. The photosynthetic rates are high in the spectral regions absorbed by the water-soluble "phycobilin" pigments (phycoerythrin and phycocyanin), while the light absorbed by chlorophyll and carotenoids is poorly utilized for oxygen production. In red algae containing chiefly phycoerythrin, the action spectrum closely resembles that of the water-extracted pigment, with peaks corresponding to its absorption maxima (495, 540, and 565 mµ). Such algae include Delesseria, Schizymenia, and Porphyrella. In the genus Porphyra, there is a series P. nereocystis, P. naiadum, and P. perforata, with increasingly more phycocyanin and less phycoerythrin: the action spectra reflect this, with increasing activity in the orange-red region (600 to 640 mµ) where phycocyanin absorbs.
In all these red algae, photosynthesis is almost minimal at 435 mµ and 675 mµ, where chlorophyll shows maximum absorption. Although the chlorophylls (and carotenoids) are present in quantities comparable to the green algae, their function is apparently not that of a primary light absorber; this role is taken over by the phycobilins. In this respect the red algae (Rhodophyta) appear unique among photosynthetic plants.