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Brown algae (SG: alga), comprising the class Phaeophyceae, are a large group of multicellular algae, including many seaweeds located in colder waters within the Northern Hemisphere. Brown algae are the major seaweeds of the temperate and polar regions. They are dominant on rocky shores throughout cooler areas of the world. Most brown algae live in marine environments, where they play an important role both as food and as a potential habitat. For instance, Macrocystis, a kelp of the order Laminariales, may reach 60 m (200 ft) in length and forms prominent underwater kelp forests. Kelp forests like these contain a high level of biodiversity. Another example is Sargassum, which creates unique floating mats of seaweed in the tropical waters of the Sargasso Sea that serve as the habitats for many species. Many brown algae, such as members of the order Fucales, commonly grow along rocky seashores. Some members of the class, such as kelps, are used by humans as food.
|Giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera)|
Between 1,500 and 2,000 species of brown algae are known worldwide. Some species, such as Ascophyllum nodosum, have become subjects of extensive research in their own right due to their commercial importance. They also have environmental significance through carbon fixation.
Brown algae belong to the group Heterokontophyta, a large group of eukaryotic organisms distinguished most prominently by having chloroplasts surrounded by four membranes, suggesting an origin from a symbiotic relationship between a basal eukaryote and another eukaryotic organism. Most brown algae contain the pigment fucoxanthin, which is responsible for the distinctive greenish-brown color that gives them their name. Brown algae are unique among heterokonts in developing into multicellular forms with differentiated tissues, but they reproduce by means of flagellated spores and gametes that closely resemble cells of other heterokonts. Genetic studies show their closest relatives to be the yellow-green algae.