The reproductive cells of macroalgae are regarded as the life history stages most susceptible to various environmental stresses, including UV radiation (UVR). UVR is proposed to determine the upper depth distribution limit of macroalgae on the shore. These hypotheses were tested by UV-exposure experiments, using spores and young thalli of the eulittoral Rhodophyceae Mastocarpus stellatus and Chondrus crispus and various sublittoral brown macroalgae (Phaeophyceae) with different depth distribution from Helgoland (German Bight) and Spitsbergen (Arctic). In spores, the degree of UV-induced inhibition of photosynthesis is lower in eulittoral species and higher in sublittoral species. After UV stress, recovery of photosynthetic capacity is faster in eulittoral compared to sublittoral species. DNA damage is lowest while repair of DNA damage is highest in eulittoral compared to sublittoral species. When the negative impact of UVR prevails, spore germination is inhibited. This is observed in deep water kelp species whereas the same UVR doses do not inhibit germination of shallow water kelp species. A potential acclimation mechanism to increase UV tolerance of brown algal spores is the species-specific ability to increase the content of UV-absorbing phlorotannins in response to UV-exposure. Growth rates of young Mastocarpus and Chondrus gametophytes exposed to experimental doses of UVR are not affected while growth rates of all young kelp sporophytes exposed to UVR are significantly lowered. Furthermore, morphological UV damage in Laminaria ochroleuca includes tissue deformation, lesion, blistering and thickening of the meristematic part of the lamina. The sensitivity of young sporophytes to DNA damage is correlated with thallus thickness and their optical characteristics. Growth rate is an integrative parameter of all physiological processes in juvenile plants. UV inhibition of growth may affect the upper distribution depth limit of adult life history stages. Juveniles possess several mechanisms to minimize UVR damage and, hence, are less sensitive but at the expense of growth. The species-specific susceptibility of the early life stages of macroalgae to UVR plays an important role for the determination of zonation patterns and probably also for shaping up community structure.