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Photosynthesis on the edge: photoinhibition, desiccation and freezing tolerance of Antarctic bryophytes


In Antarctica, multiple stresses (low temperatures, drought and excessive irradiance) hamper photosynthesis even in summer. We hypothesize that controlled inactivation of PSII reaction centres, a mechanism widely studied by pioneer work of Fred Chow and co-workers, may effectively guarantee functional photosynthesis under these conditions. Thus, we analysed the energy partitioning through photosystems in response to temperature in 15 bryophyte species presenting different worldwide distributions but all growing in Livingston Island, under controlled and field conditions. We additionally tested their tolerance to desiccation and freezing and compared those with their capability for sexual reproduction in Antarctica (as a proxy to overall fitness). Under field conditions, when irradiance rules air temperature by the warming of shoots (up to 20 °C under sunny days), a predominance of sustained photoinhibition beyond dynamic heat dissipation was observed at low temperatures. Antarctic endemic and polar species showed the largest increases of photoinhibition at low temperatures. On the contrary, the variation of thermal dissipation with temperature was not linked to species distribution. Instead, maximum non-photochemical quenching at 20 °C was related (strongly and positively) with desiccation tolerance, which also correlated with fertility in Antarctica, but not with freezing tolerance. Although all the analysed species tolerated − 20 °C when dry, the tolerance to freezing in hydrated state ranged from the exceptional ability of Schistidium rivulare (that survived for 14 months at − 80 °C) to the susceptibility of Bryum pseudotriquetrum (that died after 1 day at − 20 °C unless being desiccated before freezing).

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We wish to thank Comité Polar Español (CPE), CSIC’s Unidad de Tecnología Marina (UTM), the AEMET group and all the personnel at Base Juan Carlos I and vessel Hespérides for their help during the Antarctic campaigns 2017/2018 and 2019/2020. We deeply thank Dr. Ochyra for helping in the identification of the studied species. JF wants to thank Fred Chow for having been a scientific and life example; 20 years after working on photoinhibition with Fred in Australia as a PhD student, JF could be back into the Southern Hemisphere to study Antarctic plants: this study links a career-life trajectory.


This work was supported by Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades (MCIU, Spain) and the ERDF (FEDER) [PGC2018-093824-B-C41]; and the Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte (MECD, Spain) [FPU-02054].

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Correspondence to Alicia Victoria Perera-Castro.

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Perera-Castro, A.V., Flexas, J., González-Rodríguez, Á.M. et al. Photosynthesis on the edge: photoinhibition, desiccation and freezing tolerance of Antarctic bryophytes. Photosynth Res 149, 135–153 (2021).

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  • Bryophytes
  • Energy partitioning
  • Fertility
  • Freezing tolerance
  • Heat dissipation
  • Non-photochemical quenching