Is seaweed technically an alga

Algae: what you should know about algae

Algae are an exciting field of research for scientists, and the raw material of the future for entrepreneurs. For many people they are just annoying - or even dangerous. Nine exciting facts about the versatile plant organisms

Algae as life givers

1. Algae are the origin of our existence

Every second oxygen molecule that we need to breathe comes from photosynthesis in algae. They are the main suppliers of oxygen not only in the water, but also on the earth's surface. Our existence and the existence of all other organisms living in the water depend on algae.

The single and multicellular plants occur mainly in aquatic habitats, but rarely also on land. They are among the oldest plant organisms on earth.

Cyanobacteria, known as blue-green algae, were the first oxygen-producing organisms on earth around 3.5 billion years ago. According to more recent scientific findings, however, they are not algae, but bacteria. Most of them consist of chlorophyll. According to the symbiotic theory, real plant cells have incorporated the bacteria. According to fossil finds, scientists assume that eukaryotic algae with a cell nucleus formed 2.2 billion years ago. The incorporated blue-green algae serve your cells as photosynthesis power plants.

Cyanobacteria and algae are credited with transforming the poisonous primordial atmosphere into an oxygen-rich one through photosynthesis. The development of animal life on the planet was only possible through them.

2. Climate-saving algae?

Algae can change the climate and partly counteract the greenhouse effect. They remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and bind it into organic matter. Algae convert three times more CO2 than crops.

This phenomenon can be observed at warm temperatures: the small sea creatures then produce the sulfur compound dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP). Bacteria convert the substance into the climate active ingredient dimethyl sulfide (DMS), which rises into the air. There it provides for the typical sea scent on the one hand, and on the other it stimulates the formation of clouds. Less sun, more clouds - the atmosphere cools down.

Research is particularly interested in the climate effect of algae. In around 2000 studies, experts tried to calculate the climate effect. Scientists from Institute of Oceanography in Barcelona (CSIC) have raised a huge data archive this year. It now includes 50,000 measurements from all over the world, which have now been evaluated. The result: algae actually cool the climate, especially over the oceans of the southern hemisphere. Their effect is particularly great there, as heat stimulates the algae to produce more sulfur.

Despite their important role in cloud formation, according to the study, the greenhouse gases generated by humans have a greater impact on the climate than the DMS particles. To solve the problem, scientists are going further and are considering fertilizing the oceans with iron to create an artificial algal bloom. The algae growth is increased enormously, thus more CO2 is absorbed.

This method is currently still controversial. Some algae produce a neurotoxin that can kill mammals and birds. Geo-engineering, the targeted influencing of the climate with technical-physical means, has many supporters. Critics of geoengineering object, however, that the consequences of such processes have not been researched enough to be able to test them on a large scale.

Algal blooms and algae farms

3. Algal bloom

When algae multiply en masse, they become a danger. In doing so, they can cause immense damage to the environment, humans and animals. The algal bloom is a natural phenomenon that repeats itself from year to year at different times around the world. If it is warm and there are many nutrients available, algae multiply rapidly in both fresh and marine water. We call the massive occurrence of plant organisms algal blooms.

One of the reasons for the bloom is the excessive supply of nutrients in the waters. This takes place through the inflow of nutrients from the wastewater and through the input from fertilized agricultural areas. Flowering can ultimately end in an ecological catastrophe. Namely when too many algae sink towards the bottom and are broken down by bacteria. During the breakdown, oxygen is consumed, which other living beings lack. The lack of oxygen in numerous bodies of water endangers the survival of all oxygen-dependent organisms in aquatic habitats. Only jellyfish, bacteria and other algae can survive in the dead zones.

The best known dead zones are in the Gulf of Mexico, the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea. In the Baltic Sea, an area of ​​42,000 square kilometers is oxygen-free, on another 100,000 the oxygen content is so low that they are classified as dead zones.

Blossoms from both poisonous and non-poisonous algae can have dramatic consequences. A current example is the carpet of algae that formed on the Breton coast in July. The green alga Ulva lactuca is a non-toxic plant that grows preferentially in shallow water areas on ocean coasts around the world. People even benefit from green algae: Ulva is used both in the food industry and for wastewater treatment.

Due to the over-fertilization of the affected coastal zone with wastewater from agriculture, the green algae has been a problem in France for over 30 years due to the extreme algal bloom. The carpets of algae washed up on the coast dry out in the sun and form a white crust under which toxic gases develop. These threaten people and animals: 36 wild boars probably died in July in northern Brittany from the fouling gases of the green algae.

Hydrogen sulfide was detected in six carcasses examined. Two years ago, a worker who had helped remove the green algae also died of a cardiac arrest - possibly caused by the toxic gases.

Microalgae often produce dangerous toxins. They are distributed worldwide and are also found in the Mediterranean. The concentration of their toxins is highest during the algal bloom. Fish die, the poison accumulates in mussels and enters humans via the food chain. The toxin can cause severe food poisoning, memory loss, or even death in humans.

Most of the dangerous types of algae exist in groups of Cyanobacteria and the Dinoflagellates (Flagellated algae / armored flagellants). The accumulation of such poisons serves some algae as passive protection against enemies.

4. Algae farms

The West has now discovered for itself what is widespread in Asia: Algae can be used and marketed in a variety of ways. Algae production could become an important industry in the future. The demand for algae products, for example in Germany, sometimes exceeds the supply. Industry interest in algae is growing.

Up to ten million tons of algae are fished out of the oceans year after year - mostly from aquacultures in Asian waters. Algae are used in cosmetics, medicine, pharmacy and the food industry.

In Asia, algae have long been commercially produced as useful plants. Today almost every family on the east coast of Zanzibar has their own field in a tidal area where algae are cultivated. The investments are low and the growing conditions are ideal. Eucheuma cottoni algae sell best on the Zanzibar coast.

Trading companies buy their harvest from the algae fishermen in Zanzibar, which is primarily intended for export: the USA, France and Denmark are among the buyers. Here they are mainly used in the wellness area.

One of the German algae farms is on Sylt. The Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research(AWI) and the German Federal Foundation Environment(DBU) have tested the year-round, environmentally friendly breeding of North Sea macroalgae as food in a three-year project. According to the DBU, the project has prepared the basis for commercial, ecologically sensible seaweed breeding in Germany.

Today the marine biologist and operator of the Sylt algae farm, Klaus Lüning, sells his algae to restaurants and a Sylt bakery, among other things. The red algae grow in 2000 liter tanks Palmaria and brown algae Laminaria in flowing sea water. In the future, the plants should also cover the energy demand. The biomass of the rapidly multiplying brown algae is split into two important components: bioethanol and methane. They can be used as fuel or to generate heat.

There is also a large microalgae production facility in Klötze (Saxony-Anhalt). Grow here Chlorella vulgaris-Algae, instead of in the ponds common in Asia, in a 1.2 hectare greenhouse in a 500 km long glass tube system. Scientists monitor and optimize the manufacturing processes. Klötzer algae are sold to the pharmaceutical and food industries, among others.

Medicine, cosmetics, food

5. Remedies and Supplements

Algae have a wide range of active pharmaceutical ingredients and raw materials. In science, the possibilities of using microalgae for the production of active pharmaceutical ingredients are being discussed intensively. But for the most part, the medical and pharmaceutical industries are involved in basic research.

The health-promoting plant substances with pharmacological effects include algae pigments (chlorophyll and caratinoids) and, above all, structural substances such as Fucoidane. In scientific laboratory and animal studies, anti-tumor, anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties of fucoidans have been discovered.

Fucoidane are easy to obtain and are a by-product of production for the food and cosmetics industries. They may be used in the future to treat herpes, HIV diseases, and wound healing.

Japanese researchers were able to demonstrate in animal experiments that two brown algae products commonly consumed in Japan (wakame and its root Mekabu from brown algae Undaria pinnatifida) Cause breast cancer cells to die.

An American research team from the Institute for Genetic Medicine at the University of Southern Carolina recently found out in animal experiments that algae genes can be used to repair defective light receptors in the retina. Clinical trials would follow in the next few years.

However, the therapeutic use of algae is controversial. Natural ingredients such as iodine, arsenic and toxins, which are present in high concentrations in many algae, can have harmful effects on health.

The market use as a drug is not yet in sight, but algae extracts have been used for a long time as an additive in food and as a dietary supplement. Algae are rich in vitamins and minerals. These are supposed to strengthen the immune system (zinc), stabilize the metabolism and circulation and prevent cell damage (selenium and magnesium).

This is where products stand out Spirulina platensis,Chlorella pyrenoidosa and Aphanizomenon-flos-aquae enforced. Algae preparations in the form of tablets, capsules, and powders that are taken like multivitamins must be consumed with caution, according to experts. The iodine and heavy metal content of many algae is very high.

6. Algae as a cosmetic product

Algae invigorate, purify, soothe, tighten ... The cosmetics industry knows how to advertise the active ingredients of algae. In fact, 50 types of algae are used for cosmetic applications. The natural active ingredients of the algae, their minerals and nutrient complexes, are said to be a promising remedy for skin aging and stress symptoms. The high iodine content works against cellulite and stimulates the metabolism, mineral salts detoxify, zinc and vitamins tighten the skin.

A large number of cosmetic products, from shampoos and creams to soaps, can be found in online shops, drug stores and health food stores. But you are not the sole buyer of the algae products. Wellness oases, hotels and cosmetic salons have long been using plants for various therapies.

Thalasso therapy is particularly well known. Powdered seaweed is used here to treat cellulite. But not only skin and body, but also nails should benefit from the ingredients of the algae. Creams made from a complex of algae with vitamins, provitamin B5 and biotin are supposed to protect the nails and promote regeneration.

The cosmetics industry can make good use of the numerous minerals and nutrients in algae. The products promise a better complexion, more beautiful hair, good well-being and much more.

7. Food algae

In Asia, especially in Japan and China, there is traditionally a lot of algae on the table. Since there is a lack of large agricultural areas in these countries and algae are directly available on the coasts of Japan, this is not surprising. There are even theories that algae could solve the global food problem.

Algae multiply en masse in warm countries. The main producers of algae are China, Japan, the Philippines and Korea in Asia, California in particular in North America and Brittany in Europe. More than nine million tons of macroalgae (multicellular) are harvested worldwide. 400,000 tons of it Nori (Red algae), which are mainly used for the preparation of sushi rolls.

Tange, large forms of algae, are considered a valuable food supplement in East Asia - due to their vitamins, minerals and proteins. Brown algae serve as a flavor enhancer in soups and sauces. They are also available as snacks or in the form of sweets.

In France, the green alga Ulva lactuca valued as a delicacy and often used in the kitchen. It contains a lot of magnesium, calcium and vitamins A, B12 and C.

Red algae are also known to us in this country through sushi. The trend food made the algae known to us as a food. However, their consumption is not that widespread in Germany. Algae in bread are now available in a Sylt bakery. Yoghurt, algae wine or algae crackers are largely still unknown here. Algae specialties are limited to Asia shops and sushi bars.

What many do not know: We unconsciously consume algae in many foods. From the phycocolloids, the sugar molecules in and between the cell walls of the alga, thickeners, binders and stabilizers are obtained. They are used as binders in puddings, ice cream and yogurts. As a stabilizer in margarine and cream cheese.

Some types of brown algae like Kombu have an iodine concentration in their leaves that is 40,000 times higher than in normal seawater. For Japanese people who consume the plant regularly, these amounts of iodine have no negative consequences. In Europeans who are not used to the high amounts of iodine, regular consumption of this plant can trigger an overactive thyroid.

Algae as an energy source & sewage treatment plant

8. The energy source algae

Algae produce 30 times more oil than rapeseed or corn. So far, ethanol for biofuel has been obtained from plants such as rapeseed, maize, sugar cane and grain. For all these plants, however, arable land is necessary, which is becoming scarce in view of the increasing population.

The alga, in turn, doesn't need much to grow: just nutrients, light, water and carbon dioxide. From a scientific and commercial point of view, interest in the use of algae for the production of bioenergy as well as in biotechnology is growing.

The mineral oil industry has been investing in the energy crop for years. Together with scientists from the University of Arizona, the BP group is researching how biofuel can be obtained from algae. Shell and the US company HR Biopetroleum are growing seaweed in a plant in Hawaii. Here vegetable oil is to be obtained economically, which is converted into biofuel.

The alga Chlorella vulgaris is particularly suitable for the production of biodiesel. Increasing the fat content of the plant is decisive for the production of biodiesel. To do this, it is dried, oil is extracted from the algae powder and the diesel-compatible substances are precisely analyzed.

However, the quality is currently not sufficient to produce fuel. But there is more research into how processes can be improved to achieve higher fat levels. The only problem is: the plant and operating costs are too expensive to make profit from algae with biofuel - unless oil prices rise. Then algae could become a profitable source of fuel.

9. Wastewater treatment with algae

Algae absorb nitrogen and phosphate from wastewater and clean it. In this process, the carbon dioxide from the air and wastewater is converted into oxygen with the help of light. In symbiosis with bacteria, pollutants are broken down from the wastewater and the water is purified. Wastewater from agriculture and industry could be cleaned with this method. Entrepreneurs and scientists believe that it is more effective than in a conventional sewage treatment plant.

The Technical University of Hamburg-Harburg has developed a wastewater treatment process using algae.However, this is primarily suitable for countries with strong solar radiation. Algae in sewage treatment plants are interesting for entrepreneurs from another point of view. In addition to cleaning, they produce biomass, from which biofuel can be obtained.

The Aquaflow company in Blenheim (New Zealand) already uses algae for these purposes. In a container on the company's premises, the nutrients from the region's wastewater are converted into an algae paste. This is then used to produce crude oil, kerosene for aircraft or industrial chemicals.

The treated wastewater is so clean, according to company reports, that it can be used to irrigate the Marlborough vineyards. However, the company wants to make further use of the algae. She is currently working on improving wastewater treatment technology in order to achieve drinking water quality.