Polar seaweeds are strongly adapted to the low temperatures of their environment, Antarctic species more strongly than Arctic species due to the longer cold water history of the Antarctic region. By reason of the strong isolation of the Southern Ocean the Antarctic marine flora is characterized by a high degree of endemism, whereas in the Arctic only few endemic species have been found so far. All polar species are strongly shade adapted and their phenology is finely tuned to the strong seasonal changes of the light conditions. The paper summarises the present knowledge of seaweeds from both polar regions with regard to the following topics: the history of seaweed research in polar regions; the environment of seaweeds in polar waters; biodiversity, biogeographical relationships and vertical distribution of Arctic and Antarctic seaweeds; life histories and physiological thallus anatomy; temperature demands and geographical distribution; light demands and depth zonation; the effect of salinity, temperature and desiccation on supra-and eulittoral seaweeds; seasonality of reproduction and the physiological characteristics of microscopic developmental stages; seasonal growth and photosynthesis; elemental and nutritional contents and chemical and physical defences against herbivory. We present evidence to show that specific characteristics and adaptations in polar seaweeds help to explain their ecological success under environmentally extreme conditions. In conclusion, as a perspective and guide for future research we draw attention to many remaining gaps in knowledge. © 2006 Springer Science+Business Media B.V.