The field of biotechnology has opened up our eyes to many new and exciting uses of different organisms. Take algae for example. For most people, algae are nothing more than the slimy green plant material that is often seen on the surface of ponds and lakes. Algae might soon be making its way into our homes and food in one way or another. Algae have many different industrial and commercial uses that come from its unique make-up and biological functions. Some of the main ones are looked at below.
The Biology of Algae
In terms of biological classification, algae are part of the Protista kingdom. This means they cannot be classed as plants even though they share some important traits. Protista are usually single-celled, but in the case of most algae, they are multicellular. Algae appear green in color because, like plants, they contain the important pigment known as chlorophyll. Chlorophyll enables the process of photosynthesis; thus algae are able to convert carbon dioxide into food using the sun’s energy and with oxygen as a by-product. This unique capability is important to the various uses of algae.
There are many different varieties of algae. This includes the common ones such as seaweeds like kelp. The different algae types differ greatly and are classified according to the pigments they have for photosynthesis and their cellular structure.
Using Algae for Food
Algae have long been used as animal feed, and biotechnologists continue to show interest in this field. Edible algae seaweed, as well as pond algae, are being tapped into for their high nutrient content. Many algae are used in protein supplements and other health foods. Algae are mostly high in vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, fiber, and protein. Because of this, scientists are considering the massive potential of using algae as one of the solutions to future food shortages. The world’s population is growing, and traditional agriculture and animal rearing take up a lot of land. Algae cultivation is faster, simpler, and does not need soil. Growing the plant-like organism in more water bodies could impact future world food production.
Algae as a Renewable Energy Source
Much biotechnology research has also gone into exploring the potential of algae as a source of renewable energy. Many startups are cultivating algae for biofuel. There are different routes being explored. One way is to extract oil from algae. Another is to take sugars produced by algae during photosynthesis and further convert these into ethanol. Algae cultivation comes with its own share of challenges when it comes to maximizing exposure of the organism to sunlight and air. To date, over $70 billion has been invested in algae energy research and development.
Other Potential Uses of Algae
Research on other possible uses of algae continues at research centers around the world. There is an opportunity to use algae to clean up the air by reducing carbon dioxide levels. Water scrubbing is also being explored. This uses algae to clean up wastewater in conjunction with microbes such as bacteria. The algae produce oxygen for bacteria to break down the organic waste, and bacteria produce carbon dioxide in that process, which is in turn used up by the algae.
Algae also find important use in the medical field. Red algae, for example, contain a very expensive carotenoid known as Astaxanthin. This is a powerful antioxidant being tested for various medical and nutritional uses.
There are many other uses of algae. The ongoing challenge for companies cultivating these organisms is to cut the costs of production to match the current alternatives. As the world’s energy and food demands continue to rise, more affordable and sustainable food and energy sources are going to be required.