So what have algae ever done for us?

Several of my posts on this blog allude to the “Cinderella” status of algae in the eyes of most natural historians, and I am always keen to emphasise the important role that algae play in aquatic ecosystems.  Over the past few months, however, I have had some help in this endeavour, in the form of two placement students from Newcastle University’s marine science degree.   We have been taking the first tentative steps towards developing some web pages that emphasise the very large contributions that algae, mostly overlooked, have made to the modern world.  

I thought that it might be a good idea to “beta test” the content of these pages on my blog, before finding a permanent home for them on the web.  The two students, Alexandra Jackson and Matt Walker, second year undergraduates at Newcastle, worked up a short list of major benefits of algae, based on a survey of experienced phycologists (the council of the British Phycological Society) then wrote some text  to explain each of these, along with some visual aids and a list of authoritative sources for further reading.  This, then, is what will be the “home page” of this series of pages, with text written by Alex and Matt and edited by myself.  As we get more pages ready to go, I will insert hyperlinks to make it easier to navigate around the pages.

Alexandra Jackson and Matt Walker, the placement students from Newcastle University responsible for this series of posts.   The image at the top of this post is Günter Forsterra’s winning image from the 2015 Hilda Canter-Lund photography competition.

The term “algae” encompasses an enormous and diverse group of photosynthetic organisms that can be found in marine, freshwater and terrestrial environments throughout the world.   Some can be seen with the naked eye but many are so small that they can only be seen with microscopes.

Algae influence our lives in far more ways than anyone might imagine. All the plants around us, including all the crops which feed us and provide us with fuel and fabric, have evolved from algae. In addition to being, ultimately, responsible for life on earth, algae form the foundation for many ecosystems (as a food source and primary producer).  Collectively, algae are responsible for over 50% of global primary production and, in the process, produce over 50% of the oxygen that we breathe. As this primary production is fuelled by carbon dioxide, algae can help tackle climate change by acting as a ‘carbon sink’. In addition to these global contributions to our livelihoods, algae also contribute in myriad other ways: they are used in waste-water treatment, agriculture and for coastal defences. Algae are, themselves, a major food resource in some parts of the world (particularly Asia).  Even when algae are not consumed directly, they can provide raw materials for the food industry, including natural food colourings.  Algal products are also used in some medicines, toiletries and cosmetics and the potential for algae to replace fossil fuels is being explored.

There will be more about these topics in future posts.  You can also read more about algae in the latest issue of the Natural History Museum’s Evolve magazine, which has illustrations of several winning and short-listed entries from the Hilda Canter-Lund competition illustrating an article written by me describing the diversity and relevance of algae.