Algae: The base of the Marine Food Web

The diversity of life in the Earths oceans is astounding, despite the fact that we have explored less than 5 percent of its depths. Large animals like whales, dolphins and sharks might be what most people imagine when they think of creatures of the ocean, but photosynthetic algae may be the most important. Algae are the first step in a biological chain of events that make it possible for other life to exist, both in the oceans and on the land. 

Tidal pools along the Sea of Cortez provide a home to a diversity of both micro and macro algae species. 

The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can not be created or destroyed, only transferred from one state to another. Luckily for us humans (and all other heterotrophs), ancient organisms developed a process to turn the suns energy and a readily available element (Carbon) into useable biomass: Photosynthesis. This transfer of light energy into stored chemical energy (Carbon to Carbon bonds) allowed for the proliferation of animals that have inhabited the earth starting with the first fishes of the Paleozoic. 

This marine snail has been feeding on benthic algae. The snail will likely become a food source for a larger fish. 

Ancient algae living in the oceans were very simple organisms similar to modern day cyanobacteria, a basic cell lacking the internal structure of organelle. Through time, as algal biodiversity increased so did the diversity of organisms that could feed upon them, setting up the base of a food web that has continued to this day. Imagine the simplicity of the first marine food web and how that has changed through time. The players have changed, but the rules are the same: get the energy and try to keep it. 

A fossilized stromatolite from Mexico. Stromatolites are ancient algae that have been mineralized. 

Algae play an important role in not just local and regional food webs, but in important global cycles like the Carbon and Nitrogen cycles. Without algae (perhaps even specific species of them!) the oceans of the Earth would not contain the diversity of life that they do. And to take that a step further, the entire planet would not contain the diversity that it does.

Algae Kits Now Available

In order to make it easier to get started growing algae, I have added kits to the Algae Shop. The basic kit includes your choice of 1 liter of algae culture and 100 liters of growing medium. This is ideal if you already have a growing system or plan on building one. There  are also two kits that include complete growing systems, algae and media. 

Algae growing kit including 4 bioreactors, algae culture and medium. 

Algae growing kit including 4 bioreactors, algae culture and medium. 

Check out our Algae Kits page in our Shop. You can also buy the bioreactors and algae cultures individually. 

Diatoms, Algae and the Environment: a tidbit

I first started working with algae in 1999, during my undergraduate work at Oklahoma State University. My advisor, Bill Henley was working on a project at the Great Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge to collect and identify the extremophile algae that lived there. In my years working there I became familiar with many of the algae taxa that inhabit inland saline habitats, especially the diatoms. Studying the diatom assemblages of the Salt Plains turned into my Masters Thesis and an enduring interest in diatoms. 


A diatom of the genus  Navicula  collected in Peru. 

A diatom of the genus Navicula collected in Peru. 

Diatoms are of great global importance. To start with, diatoms are responsible for between 20-40% of the earths oxygen production. This fact alone should make you want to hug a diatom. However, this huge contribution to global oxygen supplies is just a byproduct (even considered to be a waste product) of photosynthesis. The primary objective of any diatom is to fix carbon dioxide into energy and biomass. The resulting biomass happens to be tasty and nutritious to many organisms, and is therefore the base of many aquatic food chains, especially in marine systems. So, much of that tasty seafood we love, was once an unpretentious diatom. 

Anyone can quite quickly grasp the difference between having potatoes and not having potatoes. It is somewhat more difficult to establish the consequences of, for example Cyclotella americana Fricke being extirpated from Lake Erie.
— Stoermer and Smol, The Diatoms: Applications for the Environmental and Earth Sciences

Sometimes the high productivity of diatoms can get out of hand, especially in response to nutrient pollution into aquatic habitats. As this story reports, we are seeing an unprecedented bloom of the toxin producing diatom, Pseudo-Nitzschia all along the Pacific coast. 

Our understanding of nature and the environment is incomplete, as stated by Stoermer and Smol in the above quote about potatoes and Cyclotella. And, the limited application of the knowledge we do have may be keeping us from making breakthroughs in areas of environmental remediation and environmental industrialism. 

Living Ink Technologies: A Green Greeting Card from Algae

A prototype greeting card from Living Ink Technologies of Fort Collins Colorado. 

It certainly is nice to see someone using a different approach in the algae industry. Living Ink Technologies of Fort Collins Colorado is a new startup in 2014 and are using their experience with algae to do something completely different, create a photosynthesizing greeting card. The company is currently in its development stage and has several card prototypes on its website. 

Living Ink Technologies on Facebook

I really like the idea behind these cards. The cards are stamped or painted with various strains of algae which can lead to different colors and different rates of growth. So a colorful living message and image can be revealed through time.

The founders of LIT are Scott Fulbright and Steve Albers, both graduate students at Colorado State University are researching various components of algal technology, including biofuel and pigment production. I wish these guys the best with their venture and I can't wait to order my first Dunaliella salina based greeting card. 


Scott Fulbright and Steve Albers of Living Ink Technologies