Turn back the clock to around 650 million years ago and you would witness a vastly different world around you void of any life on land, in part due to the air being composed of “less than five percent oxygen, instead being mainly a nitrogen and carbon dioxide mixture” restricting life to begin in the early oceans of earth (Ocean Exploration and Research, 2020). Some organisms, such as phytoplankton and algae, that lived in these oceans had evolved to utilise the carbon dioxide rich atmosphere and the sun’s radiation to provide themselves energy, producing oxygen as a by-product in a process called photosynthesis. In fact, “[t]he oldest known fossil is from a marine cyanobacterium, a tiny-blue green photosynthesizer that was releasing oxygen 3.5 billion years ago.” (Morsink, 2018). Over millions of years life thrived in the increasingly oxygen filled atmosphere and evolving and diversifying until the oxygen produced by these countless organisms was at such a volume that it raised oxygen levels to be closer to the 21 percent that exists in our atmosphere today, allowing life to emerge from the oceans and begin to survive on land. That gooey green grass, seaweed and those ominous looking algae blooms that we tend to not often think off unless it is surprising us on a swim or impacting our lives, is what is responsible for us all existing on this planet, and is essential for life to continue on this beautiful blue marble we call Earth.
What are Algae?
Algae is an extremely diverse family that includes “microscopic, unicellular organisms that grow in group while other types are much bigger, such as seaweed and giant kelp. Varieties include blue-green algae, green algae, red algae, and brown algae.” (Leisure Pro, 2019). Phytoplankton is an “unicellular plant-like organism” that “is the base of the marine food chain.” while aiding in the production of oxygen needed for life to continue to thrive on Earth (Leisure Pro, 2019). One of the most abundant forms of algae on Earth was only discovered in the late 1980’s and is called ‘Prochlorococcus’ which is now estimated “to be responsible for producing 20 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere.”, meaning that, “[o]ne in every five breaths you take, you owe to Prochlorococcus.” (Morsink, 2018). Because of their need for solar radiation to properly photosynthesize, many organisms such as Prochlorococcus must reside in areas of the ocean known as the ‘photic zone’, which “extends down to about 656 feet (200 metres) below the surface of the ocean” where the Sun’s light can still reach it. However, some forms of red algae have been found to still photosynthesize at depths of 886 feet below the surface, demonstrating the resilience these creatures have.
Through photosynthesis these organisms create and maintain healthy marine aquatic ecosystems by operating as a natural filter that also provides oxygen not only to the land, but to the animals that require it within the ocean as well. When “nutrient-rich waters reach the top [they] trigger an increase in algal density, called algal blooms.” that may appear to be harmful as they consume the ocean waters around them, but are actually highly beneficial, increasing biological processes while “ more organic compounds are produced for higher organisms, like oysters, clams, mussels, and ultimately, humans.”, making these blooms necessary for ocean life to thrive (Leisure Pro, 2019).
In a way, many forms of algae are the best friends of the ocean. They form symbiotic relationships with several species of marine life like sponges and coral, the latter of which cannot survive in an environment where algae is absent, and provide nourishment and energy to those marine animals that consume it, maintaining a balance that is necessary for healthy ecosystems. Unfortunately, as with friends, sometimes algae have buddies who are not as great. “An algae bloom occurs when the conditions are right for phytoplankton to reproduce rapidly,” but this can be detrimental to smaller bodies of water where the algae can suck the oxygen from the ‘room’ through its decaying process as older algae dies off asphyxiating the life around them (Nichols, 2020). Other forms of algae can be toxic, although “less than 1% of algae blooms actually produce toxins.” These toxic algae blooms can cause illness in humans who encounter the algae, typically through the consumption of tainted seafood, and even death in many other species. When death occurs in the ocean, the dearly departed sinks to the floor and decays, further expelling more toxins into the waters. If the harmful algae are deadly to a mass number of creatures then this can create a highly toxic environment that destroys ecosystems. Thankfully, these are the minority and the benefits of algae far outweigh the deficits.
“[B]etween 1994 and 2007, our oceans absorbed 34 gigatons of the world’s carbon through algae, vegetation, and coral. In other words, the trees might not save us—but the oceans could” and because of this, more focus has been given to the study of algae in more recent years in hopes that our environmental salvation will come in the form of not plant life on land, but from the form of life that helped start it all (Lamm, 2019). Without healthy marine ecosystems the right kind of algae create that provide the oxygen, nutrients and homes needed for life to thrive, ocean life will continue to deteriorate and we could face a seafood shortage, or worse, a continued increase to the carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, making our air more toxic for life on Earth.
How Algae is Changing the World
Our future is in our oceans and not only the oxygen that comes from them, but also the seafood that is necessary for the world food supply and the vital fishing and aquaculture sectors that majorly contribute to the world economy. While algae in the ocean promotes the sustainability of those environments, algae are also being harvested for eco friendly solutions.
In an effort to minimize our plastic use and thus reduce the negative effects plastic pollution has on our environments, ocean and air quality and our Earth, “[o]ne promising answer to the plastic problem is…to replace non-degradable plastic manufactured from petroleum based oil with sustainably produced and degradable bioplastics, that is, plastics produced by living organisms such as plants, algae and bacteria.” (The University of Queensland, 2019). Plastics made from living organisms can also aid in reducing the environmental impact of ‘ghost gear’ in our oceans that is discarded or lost from fishing vessels. These bioplastics are costly to create at this time, but efforts are being made to find innovations that can make bioplastics the way of the future.
The history behind Algae as a source of biofuel (fuel made from sustainable natural resources, rather than from environmentally harmful petroleum) is a sordid one with it being posed as a complete replacement only to have the process it takes to convert it be discovered as energy consuming to a point where it was not feasible or responsible to do so, but the advantages were too numerous to completely give up. “These algal advantages include higher biofuel yields compared to previous systems, a diverse list of possible fuel types including biodiesel, butanol, ethanol and even jet fuel, as well as the fact that large-scale algae cultivation – whether in open ponds or more advanced closed-loop systems – can be done on land unsuitable for food crops, removing a key concern that biofuel feedstock crops would compete with food producers.” once again showcasing the versatility of algae and how it is so important to our future (Lo, 2020). More recent innovations to this process have put algae as a biofuel back in the running as a sustainable means for fuel, that would greatly reduce the use of fossil fuels such as petroleum. If algae take hold as a viable and sustainable biofuel, this will mean not only a healthier planet, but a more accessible and les costly form of fuel for all.
Algae has also been used in sustainable aquaculture practices, as “[i]t is widely known that the addition of microalgae to larval fish culture tanks confers a number of benefits…” to their immune and digestive systems as well as to the nutritional value of zooplankton promoting healthy seafood production (Towers, 2013). Integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA) is an innovative approach that is continuously being studied, developed and utilised to create more sustainable aquaculture practices that closer resemble the natural order through implementing a food chain within the pond being farmed. Through combining various algae, shellfish (such as oysters), a filter animal (or an actual filter) and the fish themselves, seafood farmers can grow numerous species for harvest while saving water treatment costs by allowing the algae to clean the water, and food costs by promoting a natural food chain between the species.
As algae is the base of all marine life some fish larvae also benefit from consuming and digesting the algae directly, enhancing the overall quality of the larvae. Now algae such as seaweed and phytoplankton are posed to replace the more traditionally used fishmeal that is an unsustainable natural resource, in hopes of creating a more sustainable and healthy substitute as they provide the same essential amino acids, taurine and lipids as fishmeal while leaving a greatly reduced detrimental environmental impact.
The Future is Green
With algae having so many practical uses and so much potential for the future and it being the largest producer of the oxygen our atmosphere needs for life to continue on our planet, we cannot deny that promoting the growth of algae is necessary for our survival. The only way to achieve this is through creating and maintaining healthy marine ecosystems that promote the growth of the healthy oxygen and life-giving algae by reducing carbon emissions, plastic consumption and overall waste on both an individual and industrial level. By putting our focus on the many uses and purposes of algae and promoting and maintaining healthy and sustainable environments for it to thrive in and promote life, we can help to ensure our economic, environmental and personal survival on this world.
*For more information on the uses, history and the future of algae please visit the sources below*
Afework, B., Hanania, J., Stenhouse, K., Vargas Suarez, L., & Donev, J. (2020). Energy Education- Algae biofuel. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from https://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Algae_biofuel.
Lamm, B. (2019, September 30). Algae might be a secret weapon to combatting climate change. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from https://qz.com/1718988/algae-might-be-a-secret-weapon-to-combatting-climate-change.
Lo, C. (2020, September 28). Algal biofuel: The long road to commercial viability. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from https://www.power-technology.com/features/algal-biofuels-challenges-opportunities/.
Leisure Pro. (2019, May 17). How Algae is Both Good and Bad for Marine Ecosystems. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from https://www.leisurepro.com/blog/ocean-news/algae-good-bad-marine-ecosystems.
Morsink, K. (2018, May 09). With Every Breath You Take, Thank the Ocean. Retrieved September 26, 2020, from https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/plankton/every-breath-you-take-thank-ocean.
Nichols, M. (2020, June 12). What Can Algae Blooms in the Ocean Teach Us About Climate Change? Retrieved September 28, 2020, from https://schooledbyscience.com/algae-blooms-ocean-climate-change/.
Ocean Exploration and Research. (2020). How has the ocean made life on land possible? Retrieved September 26, 2020, from https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/facts/oceanproduction.html.
Roque D’Orbcastel, E., Boudin, E., Li, M., Carcaillet, F., & Fouilland, E. (2019, November 28). Fish, Algae, and Oysters: The Winning Trio in Aquaculture. Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://kids.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/frym.2019.00131.
The University of Queensland. (2019, September 27). Could algae help us fight the plastic problem? Retrieved September 29, 2020, from https://imb.uq.edu.au/article/2019/09/could-algae-help-us-fight-plastic-problem.
Towers, L. (2013, November 25). The Use of Algae in Fish Feeds as Alternatives to Fishmeal. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from https://thefishsite.com/articles/the-use-of-algae-in-fish-feeds-as-alternatives-to-fishmeal.
Western Digital. (2019, February 12). Infographic: Keeping Algae in Check. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from https://datamakespossible.westerndigital.com/infographic-keeping-algae-in-check/.