Algae: The Super Hero Of Y2K

By:  Melissa Jurkiewicz

     How often also does a human use or eat algae in his daily life?  When most people think of algae, they probably think of something that is slimy, gross, and dirty.  Algae may irritate people because it grows in unwanted places like swimming pools and boats.  Algae can be toxic and it is slimy, but algae benefits people in all aspects of life.  Humans obtain algin from algae to help make ice cream, pudding, face cream, and shoe polish.  Algae is present in hamburgers, yoghurt, and cakes.  Algae also helps make explosives, insulation, and paint.  Algae produces most of the oxygen that animals breathe and without it the world would suffocate.  Also, according to Helen Challand, "It is now believed that the oil and gas formed millions of years ago in the ground were created by algae" (20). 

     What if the world could find a way to dispose of sewage, produce food, and purify bodies of water at the same time?  The Aztecs have proven that this idea is possible.  Lake Texcoco flowed near the Aztec civilization.  The Aztecs disposed of their waste in the lake.  The human waste added nitrogen to the water.  The nitrogen helped algae to grow, and then the algae performed photosynthesis.  Photosynthesis gives off oxygen, and oxygen purifies polluted water.   The Aztec's also abstracted the algae from the lake and used it for food.  Certain types of algae like red and green algae are edible.  Many cultures have eaten seaweed for centuries.  Wendy O'Leary Dunn states, "They think of seaweed as a vegetable and eat it as we eat broccoli or spinach" (18).  Therefore, when humans dispose of their waste in bodies of water, they help algae grow. Then, the algae cleans the water and they can eat the algae. 

      The process of disposing waste, producing food, and purifying bodies of water is useful today.  For example, communities that live in the desert, like in the southwestern United States and in the Middle East, can use this process to farm and survive.  They can use the newly purified water for their crops or for their own consumption.  In addition, when algae purifies water, it releases oxygen.  The oxygen produced helps decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere "and thus [it] mitigate[s] the greenhouse effect" (62).  Also, in today's world the oceans suffer from oil spills or from other toxic spills.  Algae not only saves the marine life from massive devastation, but has helped to save humans from nuclear spills.  When children in the Ukraine were exposed to high levels of radioactivity, they were given four grams of Spirulina, a type of blue-green algae, a day.  Spirulina binds to radioactive substances; therefore it successfully cleansed the children's bodies and "reduced their radiation toxicity by fifty percent per year" (69). 
As the world runs out of fossil fuels that produce much of the energy we use to heat our homes, drive our cars and grow our food, humans must find another energy source.  Most farmers deplete the supply of natural gas and petroleum to make fertilizers and pesticides.  Farmers must use fertilizes to provide their crops with nitrogen.  All plants need nitrogen to grow; however, plants cannot obtain nitrogen from the air.  Farmers can grow algae simultaneously with their crops.  The algae and the crop form a relationship.  The crop gives the algae nutrients and the algae gives the crop nutrients.  One of the most important nutrients that algae provides for the crop is nitrogen.  Algae "can take the nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil or water," a process called nitrogen fixation (98).  Therefore, algae makes a good fertilizer because it produces nitrogen in the soil which helps the crops to grow.  Also, according to Lee Fryer and Dick Simmons, "[P]lants fertilized with seaweed resist attacks by insects and plant diseases" (25).  Thus, the need for pesticides could decrease. 
 Several thousand of miles of water in the Gulf of Mexico suffer from the rapid growth of algae.  The algae rapidly grows because excessive nutrients, especially nitrogen, runoff from the soil and into the ocean.  The algae eventually dies and falls to the bottom of the ocean.  Then, the algae "gets decomposed by bacteria in a process that uses up the oxygen in the saltwater" (1).  Because the oxygen level is low, near by marine life either leaves or dies.  Since the use of nitrogen rich fertilizers is a major contributor to the rapid growth of algae, perhaps farmers should just use algae as a fertilizer. 

     Several cosmetics companies have begun to use algae in their products.  Different types of algae contain elements that help to firm and moisturize the skin.  Algae also helps to reduce puffiness and protects against radiation and other agents that cause harm to the skin.  For example, Samusa, an Italian company, uses alginic acid found in algae in some of their products.  "The molecular structure of the acid forms a net on the skin that is said to help retain moisture" (13). 

     Algae also has many medical benefits.  Many types of algae possibly have anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antioxidant properties.  Also algae appears to prevent and or treat chronic fatigue, colds, arthritis, and chronic allergies.  According to Wendy Priesnitz, "A 1997 study . . . reported a newly discovered protein that inactivates HIV, which was isolated from cultures of blue green algae" (1).  Other studies have shown that Spirulina inhibits the growth of tumors and helps destroy those that are already present. 

      Certain types of algae are also highly nutritious.  Two types of algae, Spirulina and Aphanizomenon flos-aquae (AFA), are used as dietary supplements.  Spirulina contains vitamin E that boosts the immune system.  AFA contains neuropeptides and neurotransmitter precursors that improves brain function.  Most types of algae contain protein, fiber, vitamins A, C, E, B complex, and B12, calcium, iodine, potassium, and iron.  Since algae is highly nutritious, the United Nations have informed under developed countries about the benefits of algae. 

     Although excessive amounts of algae can harm ecosystems and grow in unwanted places like the bottoms of boats, algae also has countless benefits.  Perhaps humans should further research algae.  Since algae has probably been on this earth the longest, it has experienced more and may know more than any other living organism.  Algae has endured severe radiation from the sun and it has survived drastic changes in the earth's climate.  Perhaps humans can learn how algae has evolved and use the information to better adapt to our environment. 

Works Cited:

"Active Algae."  Soap, Perfumery and Cosmetics Aug.  1998:  13.
Belsie, Laurent.  "Cleaning Up Unwanted Crop:  Algae Blooms."  Christian Science   Monitor  Apr.  1999:  1-3. 

Challand, Helen J.  Plants Without Seeds.  Chicago:  Childrens Press, 1986.  18-20. 

Dunn, Wendy O'Leary.  "Seaweed Sandwiches, Anyone?"  Boys' Quest  Jul.  1995:  18-19. 

Fryer, Lee and Dick Simmons Food Power From The Sea:  The Seaweed Story.  NY:  Mason/Charter, 1977.  25. 

Howe, Maggy.  "Blue-Green Algae."  Country Living Mar.  1997:  68-70. 

Kavaler, Lucy.  Green Magic:  Algae Rediscovered.  NY:  Thomas Y. Crowell, 1983.  98,   87. 

Priesnitz, Wendy.  "Blue Green Algae Superfood or Pond Scum?"  Natural Life  Jul.    1999:  1. 

Walsh, Rob.  "Morgan's Extra-Special Tasty Dulse."  Natural History Nov.  1999:  62-63. 

Prepared by Kim Buchanan.
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