by Mark Edwards
W hat makes our planet special? We are an Algae Planet because algae are responsible for making human, animal and plant life on Earth possible. The story of how our Algae Planet evolved may seem like science fiction. Algae miracles are based on science and discovery.
Without algae, our planet would not have:
- Life on earth
- Oxygen to support life
- Energy from fossil fuels
- Beautiful forests and fields
- Food for people and feed for animals
No other organism has contributed as much to our planet as algae.
What makes earth exceptional?
One plant makes our planet exceptional. Earth differs significantly from other planets. Algae enabled the miracle of life on earth and made human societies possible.
Our planet contains diverse elements and metals that form its physical mass. These rocks and molten magma materials originated from distant space sometime after the Big Bang 14 billion years ago. Earth formed from debris orbiting around our sun about 4.5 billion years ago. On early earth, there was no life.
Algae were among the first life forms on our planet and made the earth habitable for other life. Life on earth needed a regular supply of fresh oxygen. Our grey rocky planet was covered with an atmosphere of CO₂ and other toxic gasses.
Algae created the miracle of photosynthesis. The tiny plants use the photons from sunlight as energy to capture and convert CO₂ and water into plant sugars, C6H12O6. Plant sugars are stored for energy.
The process of algae cells consuming the heavy band of CO₂ and other toxic gasses took eons. Finally, algae had released enough pure oxygen, about 20% of the atmosphere, to enable life. The full story in pictures, Tiny Mighty Anna Saves our Planet, is available below.
Today, our planet’s atmosphere is made up of 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen and small amounts of other gasses that include CO₂. Algae produce 70% of the planet’s new oxygen daily. Most new oxygen comes from phytoplankton and macroalgae — seaweed — in the ocean.
Even with enough oxygen in the atmosphere to support life, the earth had a problem. Living things need food, but there was no food. Without food, life could not exist.
Algae stepped forward and served as the first food on the planet. Nearly all life on early earth gained their nutrition from algae. Algae eventually painted a rich green biomass over the grey and black rock on the earth’s surface. A majority of the first biomass on earth came from algae and algae feeders.
Algae needed a strategy to survive when nearly every other living thing was a predator looking to feast on these tiny plants. Algae’s brilliant strategy:
Propagate and grow faster than animals could consume the plants.
At this stage, nearly all life on earth was either algae or algae feeders. Yes, there were bacteria and other microorganisms. Green algae and blue-green algae, cyanobacteria, made up most of the edible biomass.
These tiny algae plants fed trillions of organisms every day for over 2 billion years. Much of the algae and many of the algae feeders loaded with algae oil died and fell to the bottom of ancient oceans. This rich organic biomass was folded into the Earth over half a billion years where it was subjected to extreme heat and pressure.
About 170 years ago, humans discovered oil, which became the basis for fossil fuels and the industrial revolution. Coal, oil, shale and natural gas are made up largely of fossilized algae.
Today, fossil fuels power our planet’s industrial economies. We can thank algae for the miracle of industrial production that makes our human food as well as consumer and industrial products.
Algae continues to provide amazing benefits for our planet. Algae provide 40% of the new biomass on earth daily, which delivers nutritious food for nearly all forms of life. Small shell and finfish depend on algae nutrition. Most medium and large marine life, including the largest animal on our planet, the great blue whale, consume algae and algae feeders like krill and zooplankton.
Spawned land plants
Terrestrial plants evolved from green algae 500 million years ago. Early evolution included plants that had no roots and lived symbiotically with algae like corals, lichens and mosses. Algae performed the root function of absorbing nutrients to feed these rootless plants. Algae’s food service continues every day.
When plants began to develop roots and tried to grow on land, they failed for two reasons. Their roots could not penetrate the rock on the planet’s surface, so they had no way to anchor themselves. The rock and sandy soil had no humus, the rich organic material that stores moisture and nutrients. Rooted plants cannot germinate and grow without humus. Plants need the moisture in humus to collect the nutrients so the plant can pull nutrition up from its roots.
Algae have no roots and thrive in just about any moist ecosystem. Some terrestrial algae grow with only the morning mist for moisture.
Algae cells are packed with nutrients and flourish on land in puddles, ponds, lakes and wetlands. The algae-fungi symbiont lichen grows on rock surfaces that receive sunlight. Over eons, algae created multiple layers of rich organic biomass that naturally composted into humus. The addition of humus to rocks and soil provided land plants with a place to put down roots and absorb nutrients.
Nutrient processing and delivery
When land plants evolved from algae, they gave up significant capabilities as they migrated to land. Land plants lost the ability to go dormant. When algae face a catastrophic event where the pool in which they live dries up or runs out of nutrients, algae simply pause growth and go dormant. When land plants lack moisture or nutrients, they cannot rest. The plant withers and dies — quickly.
Rooted plants also did not carry forward algae’s ability as a microorganism to break down organic matter directly. Terrestrial algae has supported rooted plants for eons by breaking down organic material in the soil so the nutrients could be assimilated through the plant roots. Algae and their community of symbiotic microorganisms essentially predigest the critical nutrition for terrestrial plants in forests, prairies and fields.
Another important capability that did not follow rooted plants to land was the ability to synthesize nitrogen, N, from the air. Land plants need lots of N but have no mechanism to pull N directly from the air. Algae can capture N and provide N through nodules in the roots of legumes. Non-legume plants draw up algae cells containing N, typically ammonia, NH3, through their roots.
Land plants cannot assimilate inorganic chemical fertilizers directly such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Terrestrial algae perform their magic in the soil with their symbionts to break down chemical fertilizer. Algae cells are so tiny, they travel easily through the roots or though the plant stalk or foliage. Highly nutritious algae cells deliver nutrients to the crops. Humans consuming plant or animal foods benefit from the healthy nutrition delivered to crops by algae.
Algae enabled forests and fields to flourish and human food possible. First, algae performed the miracle of allowing all plants to evolve from her ancient ancestors. Second, algae provided the first layers of humus plants needed to survive. Third, algae actively support our planet’s natural and industrial food supply. Without algae, the foods people and animals consume would not exist.
Our Algae Planet depends on algae’s incredible work every day for fresh air and food. No other organism comes close to providing as many miracles to our earth and to human societies.
Algae Planet, the new publication, will explore fascinating questions about how algae continue to make our world better:
- What benefits does algae provide to people, animals, plants and our environment?
- What companies and people are orchestrating algae innovations and biosolutions?
- Who are the leading scientists, academics, business leaders and students making a difference with biotech breakthroughs?
- Possibly most engaging, Algae Planet will explore the miracles algae will produce next.
Algae Planet plans to highlight people and technologies regularly that help save our planet. Algae Planet will create an annual award to recognize Algae Planet innovators, business leaders, teachers and students. Please submit your ideas for innovations for a better world to email@example.com.
All rights reserved. Permission required to reprint articles in their entirety. Must include copyright statement and live hyperlinks. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Algae Planet accepts unsolicited manuscripts for consideration, and takes no responsibility for the validity of claims made in submitted editorial.