The objective of this study was to determine the effects of UV-B radiation on charophycean algae under natural conditions, since charophytes enhance water transparency in freshwater systems and levels of UV-B radiation have increased by ozone depletion. Potential and actual UV-B effects were studied by combining a glasshouse experiment in which plants were exposed to various levels of UV-B radiation and field measurements in two freshwater systems dominated by charophytes in the Netherlands. The glasshouse experiment showed that charophytes were sensitive to UV-B radiation. UV-B radiation negatively affected growth, while it increased levels of DNA damage in Chara aspera. Moreover, the charophytes did not seem to develop UV-B screens to protect against UV-B radiation since no increase in UV-B absorbing compounds was found. At field conditions, both spectroradiometrical measurements and DNA dosimeters showed that UV-B radiation was attenuated quickly in both freshwater systems, indicating that UV-B does not reach the submerged charophyte vegetation. However, specific conditions, like fluctuating water tables, may result in UV-B exposure to charophytes for certain periods annually. © New Phytologist (2005).