What are algae? They’re a lot more than pond scum and seaweed. Algae (singular: alga) are everywhere, but often we take these little and not-so-little organisms for granted. We’ve cultivated ten of our favorite algae facts on everything from food coloring to fuel to help you grow your knowledge.
- You’re brushing up on phycology.
You’ve heard of a psychologist, but ever heard of a phycologist? A phycologist is someone who studies algae. The study of algae is called phycology (phyco is Greek for seaweed) or algology (alga is Latin for seaweed).
- They’re not always as tiny as you think.
Though many of us think of single-celled green dots when talking about algae, the organism actually exists in many shapes and sizes. Kelp, one type of alga, can grow up to 200 feet long.
- Algae species are a rainbow of colors.
In the 1830s, algae were categorized based on their color. Initially, the main algae color categories were red, brown and green, but algae also grow in shades of blue, orange and yellow.
- They live almost everywhere on earth.
Algae can survive in most environments and locations. These organisms make their homes in oceans, hot springs, tree trunks and even pink snow.
- Scientists and chefs gel with them.
Agar, the gel used in petri dishes and cooking shows, comes from red algae. It’s often used as a gelatin substitute in professional cooking and is also found in laboratories, where it’s used as a medium to culture bacteria.
- They make flamingos pretty in pink.
Algae and shrimp are credited for giving flamingos their striking color. The beta-carotene in algae imbues the birds’ feathers with a magenta hue. It doesn’t just affect fowl: Too much of a good algae can turn an entire lake pink!
- They give us breathing room.
Trees shouldn’t get all the credit. Algae produce between 30 and 50 percent of our oxygen.
- You’ve probably eaten algae.
Ever heard of Spirulina? For the non-foodies, Spirulina is a food supplement that’s actually 60 to 65 percent protein (in comparison, beef is only 20 percent protein). Edible algae are often used to enhance foods or act as a natural blue food coloring—even M&M’s are switching to algae as a natural food coloring.
- Algae are really old – think Mesoproterozoic Era old.
Fossils of Dasycladales, a single-celled type of green algae, date back to at least 200 to 250 million years ago. And red algae evolved about 1.2 billion years ago.
- They’re the fuel of the past and potentially the fuel of the future.
Speaking of old, ancient algae helped form today’s crude oil and natural gas. Now, scientists at ExxonMobil are hard at work creating the low-emission biofuel of the future using algae.
Encyclopedia Britannica: Algae
Encyclopedia Britannica: Agars
Fast Company: Hope You Like Algae, Because It’s Going To Be In Everything You Eat, February 14, 2017
Live Science: What Are Algae?, June 4, 2016
Live Science: Why Are Flamingos Pink?, January 21, 2011
Wall Street Journal: The Next Hot Trends in Food, October 16, 2016
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