Algae are remarkable organisms and have seemingly endless potential. Algae are the smallest and simplest forms of aquatic plants. The term algae may be used to include both green algae and their evolutionary predecessor, cyanobacteria. Algae may measure only a micrometer in size, or they can be multicellular and grow as big as 45 meters in length. Cyanobacteria are the earliest form of photosynthetic organisms that release oxygen into the environment, which along with algae, are responsible for approximately 70% of the oxygen produced on the planet.1 Algae are one of the earliest known forms of eukaryotic life and simplest forms of modern plants and are likely the evolutionary ancestor of all plants. From these humble beginnings, algae have grown and diversified to encompass an estimated 72,500 species, which can be found in a very diverse range of circumstances from the hottest deserts to the coldest oceans.
Being photosynthetic organisms, algae utilize CO2, sunlight, water and inorganic nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, to grow. When excessive nutrients are available, from sources such as agricultural run-off and water treatment facilities algae also have the capacity to aggressively expand their population size. During these high growth events algae may generate what are called “blooms” that can become destructive to the environment. This extremely high growth potential makes algae capable of doubling its biomass in less than a day. Algae are composed of protein, carbohydrates and lipids, and these fractions of the biomass can be extracted and used for a variety of applications. Algae are truly remarkable organisms which have recently generated significant interest in their use for more sustainable business practices. The immense biodiversity of algae has caused them to have several advantages over traditional crops. These advantages include their lack of the requirement for arable land, their capacity to create biomass rich in protein, carbohydrates, and lipids, their high growth rates, their long growing season in warm climates, and their capacity to create high value products servicing a number of markets including foods, fuels, nutraceuticals, and plastics.
1. Edwards, M., The Tiny Plant that Saved Our Planet. Algae Industry Magazine 2010, (April).