By Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Bitcoin exchange Coinbase said on Thursday it is now offering the ether digital currency to consumers.

Ether is the digital currency for the Ethereum platform, a blockchain, or public database that can be used by consumers or corporations without the need for control by intermediaries.

Ethereum, which uses ether to execute peer-to-peer contracts automatically, was co-founded and invented by 22-year old Russian-Canadian programmer Vitalik Buterin.

"Ethereum is still in an early and experimental phase, and as it matures will likely evolve to serve a different purpose than Bitcoin," said Ankur Nandwani, product manager at Coinbase, in a blog posted on the company's website.

"In the meantime, Ethereum is pushing the digital currency ecosystem forward and we are excited to support it as part of our mission to create an open financial system for the world."

The addition of ether comes given the surge in interest in the digital asset among major financial institutions such as Barclays, and other global corporations which are trying to explore the Ethereum network.

Nandwani said consumers in 32 countries can now buy, sell, and store in their Coinbase accounts.

In May, ether trading was added to its digital currency exchange called GDAX (Global Digital Asset Exchange). That trading platform is focused on institutional investors and professional traders.

According to coinmarketcap.com, ether is trading at $12.64 late on Thursday, with a market capitalization of about $1.04 billion, the second largest behind bitcoin. Bitcoin currently has a market cap of $10.48 billion and trading at $664.85.

Volume for ether over the last 24 hours was around $25.7 million, while that for bitcoin was $61.2 million.

At the beginning of the year, ether traded at just $1 per token and it is one of the fastest-rising digital currencies.

(Reporting by Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss; Editing by Andrew Hay)