Content of Phycobilin Pigments in Two Strains of
Cyanobacteria of the Atacama Desert, Chile
Iris Pereiraa*, Iván Razmilicb and Jeffrey Johansenc
aInstitute of Biological Sciences, E-mail: email@example.com,
bChemistry Institute of Natural Resources, University of Talca, Talca, Chile, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
cDepartment Biology, John Caroll University, Cleveland, USA, E-mail: email@example.com
Iris Pereira, Institute of Biological Sciences, E-mail:
Received: February 24, 2014; Accepted: June 24, 2014; Published: June 27, 2014
Citation: Pereira I, Razmilic I, Johansen J (2014) Content of Phycobilin Pigments in Two Strains of Cyanobacteria of the Atacama
Desert, Chile. SOJ Microbiol Infect Dis 2(3): 1-3.
The aim of this study was to assess qualitative and quantitatively
phycobilin pigments of two nitrogen-fixing Cyanobacteria with the
purpose to optimize in the future, the culture conditions to high scale.
The studied strains were Nostoc commune and Tolypothrix tenuis,
which were gotten from cryptogamic crusts of the Atacama Desert,
Chile. They were obtained from a total of twelve transects made
between La Serena and Iquique, in the north of Chile. Soil samples
of each station were activated in 250 ml Erlenmeyer flasks for 30
min. After they were inoculated in Petri plates and then isolated
and massed to a low scale. Once the soil samples were activated,
they were cultured for 3 weeks or one month in Petri Plates on agar
Z8-N medium and later the inoculates were transferred to 250 ml
Erlenmeyer flasks in Z8-N liquid medium under room temperature
conditions and continuous irradiance. Chemical determination of
pigments and their concentrations were made by spectrophotometry.
In both strains, C-phycoerythrin was found in bigger proportion than
the C-phycocianin. Strain of Tolypothrix presents more quantity
of phycobilin pigments: 0.66 mg/ml PE and 0.32 mg/ml PC. On the
other hand The Nostoc strain, showed 0.080 mg/ml PE and 0.037
mg/ml PC. Due to the high commercial value of these pigments
in the market, it is suggested to continue with the detection and
determination of these pigments in others strains of cyanobacteria to
assess the possibility of their mass culture and exploitation.
Keywords: Atacama Desert; Cryptogamic crusts; Phycobilin
Cyanobacteria are organisms capable to fix carbon only as
higher plants. Also they can fix atmospheric nitrogen, a compound
that is transformed in ammonium and in this way it is liberated
to the soil, enriching it with this element, which acts as natural
biofertilizer. They also have phycobilin pigments as: phycocyanin
and phycoerythrin. Cyanobacteria are part of numerous
ecosystems both freshwater and marine, but also of desert soil all
over the world. On desert ecosystems, these microorganisms are
continuously submitted to a strong hydric, thermic and nutritive
stress. Their high tolerance to these conditions allows us to
support that these organisms could be easy to culture and in this
way achieve the commercialization of these molecules.
The phycobilin pigments have been used successfully in the
location of tumor cells in the treatment of cancer and it is known
that the C-phycocyanin ameliorates experimental autoimmune
encephalomyelitis and induces regulatory T- cells.  The light
produced by this fluorescence is so distinctive and reliable,
that phycobilins may be used as chemical "tags". The pigments
are chemically bonded to antibodies, which are then put into a
solution of cells. Also these molecules are used in biotechnology
 and in food due to its antioxidant activity. Based on the
obtained information, we proposed to assess qualitative and
quantitatively the content of these pigments in two nitrogenfixers
cyanobacteria strains from Atacama Desert. Therefore,
the following objectives were proposed: a) to assess quali- and
quantitatively the phycobilin pigments that these strains possess
with the purpose to optimize the conditions of their culture in a
Materials and Methods
Collection of the Samples
Soil samples came from sites established along different
altitudinal transects made in the Atacama Desert in July 2009.
Nostoc commune Bornet & Flahault came from the transect ATA
11-6B (north Calama, 20°56’074"S, 68°57’440"O, 2.964 m) and
Tolypothrix tenuis Kütz. ex Bornet & Flahault of ATA 2-3 (Vallenar,
29°22’454’’, 70°58’936’’O, 446 m).
Activation and Incubation of the Soil Samples
Soil samples were obtained from cryptogamic crusts, pools
and waterfalls. Previous to the taxonomical determination of
the species, the soil samples of each site of the transects were
sieved and then activated in a shaker for 30 min contained 200
ml of distilled water. Aliquots were plated in Petri plates in agar
Z8 and Z8-N media and were grown under controlled conditions:
continuous light, room temperature for a period of 3 weeks to a
month. After that time, the colonies were replicated in Petri plates
with agar Z8 and Z8- N media with the purpose to obtain unialgal
inocula that afterwards were cultured in 250 ml Erlenmeyer
flasks with liquid Z8-N media.
For the determination of the species, morphological and
reproductive characters were used. Measurements were taken
using a Nikon optic microscopy Optiphot model equipped with
lucida camera and graduated ocular. The obtained information
was submitted to keys and compared with descriptions presented
in the specialized bibliography such as. [3-6]
Treatment of Samples and Extraction of Phycobilin
Cyanobacteria samples had fresh weights, between 70-120
mg; 30 mg of sand were added to those samples. After that, they
were washed with concentrated HCL, sieved, calcined, dried and
macerated in a mortar with fine sand. To homogenize and extract
the pigments, 1 ml of buffer phosphate of pH 6.8 was added to the
samples. Then, 2 ml of the treated samples were transferred to an
Eppendorf tube and the remnant solution was again washed with
two aliquots of 0.5 ml of buffer phosphate. Finally, the samples
were centrifuged in a micro- centrifuge at 1000 rpm for 20 min.
Determination of the Concentration of Phycobilin
The supernatant obtained was measured in a
spectrophotometer at the following wavelength: 455, 565,
592, 618, 645 and 730 nm using a quartz cell. Readings of
absorbance were used for the calculation of the phycobilins
pigments concentrations (phycocyanin and phycoerythrin) by
the equations of.  The results were expressed in an average of
three replicates Table 1.
Results and Discussion
Both strains presented phycobilin pigments (C-phycoerythrin
and C-phycocyanin). Tolypothrix tenuis was the strain that
presented a major concentration of C- phycoerythrin and
Figure 1: Cyanobacteria strains used in the obtaining of phycobilin pigments.
The black scale represents 1 mm.
Cyanobacteria Strains/ Content
0.080 ± 0.003
0.037 ± 0.002
0.66 ± 0.01
0.32 ± 0.02
Table 1: Content of phycobilin pigments in the studied strains.
In both the studied strains, the C-phycoerythrin was
found in major proportion than the C-phycocyanin.
The Tolypothrix strain had major quantity of phycobilin
pigments, with 0.66 mg/ml PE and 0.32 mg/ml of PC. On
the other hand, the Nostoc strain had 0.080 mg/ml PE and
0.037 mg/ml PC.
According to the obtained results, it can be speculated
that with a biomass between 100 and 200 mg/ml of moist
weight of algae, 1 mg/ml of phycoerythrin and 0.5 mg/ml
of phycocyanin can be obtained for the case of Tolypothrix
According to the high value of these pigments in the
market (phycocyanin about of US $535 the milligram
and phycoerythrin around of US $244 the milligram),
depending on the type of species (Sigma-Aldrich),
it is suggested to continue with the detection and
determination of these pigments in other cyanobacteria
strains to assess the possibility of their mass culture and
To obtain one milligram of phycoerythrin and phycocyanin
from the more rentable strain (Tolypothrix tenuis) the
commercial cost was of US $4 and US $7.5 respectively.
This value includes the cost of reagents, isolation, culture
Based on the obtained results, we can conclude that both
strains of cyanobacteria from the Atacama Desert possess
different proportions of phyocyanin and phycoerythrin. The
percentage of yields of these two pigments could be increased
under different types of light allowing to increase the added value
of these natural resources, due to the “chromatic adaptation” that
The authors thank to project 2009-2010 Biodiversity of
terrestrial cyanobacteria of Atacama Desert, Chile financed by
NSF (National Science Foundation) and to the Talca University
for the facilities provided in the development of this study.
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