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An informal term for a diverse group of photosynthetic eukaryotes
Temporal range:
Mesoproterozoic–present [1] [2]
NSW seabed 1.JPG
A variety of algae growing on the sea bed in shallow waters
Vodorosli presnovodnogo vodoema 2.jpg
A variety of microscopic unicellular and colonial freshwater algae
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Groups included
Typically excluded:

Algae ( UK: /ˈælɡ/ , US: /ˈæl/ ; [3] singular alga /ˈælɡə/ ) is an informal term for a large and diverse group of photosynthetic eukaryotic organisms. It is a polyphyletic grouping that includes species from multiple distinct clades. Included organisms range from unicellular microalgae, such as Chlorella , Prototheca and the diatoms, to multicellular forms, such as the giant kelp, a large brown alga which may grow up to 50 metres (160 ft) in length. Most are aquatic and autotrophic (they generate food internally) and lack many of the distinct cell and tissue types, such as stomata, xylem and phloem that are found in land plants. The largest and most complex marine algae are called seaweeds, while the most complex freshwater forms are the Charophyta , a division of green algae which includes, for example, Spirogyra and stoneworts.

No definition of algae is generally accepted. One definition is that algae "have chlorophyll a as their primary photosynthetic pigment and lack a sterile covering of cells around their reproductive cells". [4] Likewise, the colorless Prototheca under Chlorophyta are all devoid of any chlorophyll. Although cyanobacteria are often referred to as "blue-green algae", most authorities exclude all prokaryotes from the definition of algae. [5] [6]

Algae constitute a polyphyletic group [5] since they do not include a common ancestor, and although their plastids seem to have a single origin, from cyanobacteria, [7] they were acquired in different ways. Green algae are examples of algae that have primary chloroplasts derived from endosymbiotic cyanobacteria. Diatoms and brown algae are examples of algae with secondary chloroplasts derived from an endosymbiotic red alga. [8] Algae exhibit a wide range of reproductive strategies, from simple asexual cell division to complex forms of sexual reproduction. [9]

Algae lack the various structures that characterize land plants, such as the phyllids (leaf-like structures) of bryophytes, rhizoids of non-vascular plants, and the roots, leaves, and other organs found in tracheophytes (vascular plants). Most are phototrophic, although some are mixotrophic, deriving energy both from photosynthesis and uptake of organic carbon either by osmotrophy, myzotrophy, or phagotrophy. Some unicellular species of green algae, many golden algae, euglenids, dinoflagellates, and other algae have become heterotrophs (also called colorless or apochlorotic algae), sometimes parasitic, relying entirely on external energy sources and have limited or no photosynthetic apparatus. [10] [11] [12] Some other heterotrophic organisms, such as the apicomplexans, are also derived from cells whose ancestors possessed plastids, but are not traditionally considered as algae. Algae have photosynthetic machinery ultimately derived from cyanobacteria that produce oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis, unlike other photosynthetic bacteria such as purple and green sulfur bacteria. Fossilized filamentous algae from the Vindhya basin have been dated back to 1.6 to 1.7 billion years ago. [13]

Because of the wide range of types of algae, they have increasing different industrial and traditional applications in human society. Traditional seaweed farming practices have existed for thousands of years and have strong traditions in East Asia food cultures. More modern algaculture applications extend the food traditions for other applications include cattle feed, using algae for bioremediation or pollution control, transforming sunlight into algae fuels or other chemicals used in industrial processes, and in medical and scientific applications. A 2020 review found that these applications of algae could play an important role in carbon sequestration in order to mitigate climate change while providing valuable value-add products for global economies. [14]

Etymology and study

The singular alga is the Latin word for 'seaweed' and retains that meaning in English. [15] The etymology is obscure. Although some speculate that it is related to Latin algēre, 'be cold', [16] no reason is known to associate seaweed with temperature. A more likely source is alliga, 'binding, entwining'. [17]

The Ancient Greek word for 'seaweed' was φῦκος (phŷkos), which could mean either the seaweed (probably red algae) or a red dye derived from it. The Latinization, fūcus, meant primarily the cosmetic rouge. The etymology is uncertain, but a strong candidate has long been some word related to the Biblical פוך (pūk), 'paint' (if not that word itself), a cosmetic eye-shadow used by the ancient Egyptians and other inhabitants of the eastern Mediterranean. It could be any color: black, red, green, or blue. [18]

Accordingly, the modern study of marine and freshwater algae is called either phycology or algology, depending on whether the Greek or Latin root is used. The name fucus appears in a number of taxa.


The committee on the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature has recommended certain suffixes for use in the classification of algae. These are -phyta for division, -phyceae for class, -phycideae for subclass, -ales for order, -inales for suborder, -aceae for family, -oidease for subfamily, a Greek-based name for genus, and a Latin-based name for species.

Algal characteristics basic to primary classification

The primary classification of algae is based on certain morphological features. The chief among these are (a) pigment constitution of the cell, (b) chemical nature of stored food materials, (c) kind, number, point of insertion and relative length of the flagella on the motile cell, (d) chemical composition of cell wall and (e) presence or absence of a definitely organized nucleus in the cell or any other significant details of cell structure.

History of classification of algae

Although Carolus Linnaeus (1754) included algae along with lichens in his 25th class Cryptogamia, he did not elaborate further on the classification of algae.

Jean Pierre Étienne Vaucher (1803) was perhaps the first to propose a system of classification of algae, and he recognized three groups, Conferves, Ulves, and Tremelles. While Johann Heinrich Friedrich Link (1820) classified algae on the basis of the colour of the pigment and structure, William Henry Harvey (1836) proposed a system of classification on the basis of the habitat and the pigment. J. G. Agardh (1849–1898) divided algae into six orders: Diatomaceae, Nostochineae, Confervoideae, Ulvaceae, Floriadeae and Fucoideae. Around 1880, algae along with fungi were grouped under Thallophyta, a division created by Eichler (1836). Encouraged by this, Adolf Engler and Karl A. E. Prantl (1912) proposed a revised scheme of classification of algae and included fungi in algae as they were of opinion that fungi have been derived from algae. The scheme proposed by Engler and Prantl is summarised as follows: [19]

  1. Schizophyta
  2. Phytosarcodina
  3. Flagellata
  4. Dinoflagellata
  5. Bacillariophyta
  6. Conjugatae
  7. Chlorophyceae
  8. Charophyta
  9. Phaeophyceae
  10. Rhodophyceae
  11. Eumycetes (Fungi)
False-color scanning electron micrograph of the unicellular coccolithophore Gephyrocapsa oceanica Gephyrocapsa oceanica color.jpg
False-color scanning electron micrograph of the unicellular coccolithophore Gephyrocapsa oceanica

The algae contain chloroplasts that are similar in structure to cyanobacteria. Chloroplasts contain circular DNA like that in cyanobacteria and are interpreted as representing reduced endosymbiotic cyanobacteria. However, the exact origin of the chloroplasts is different among separate lineages of algae, reflecting their acquisition during different endosymbiotic events. The table below describes the composition of the three major groups of algae. Their lineage relationships are shown in the figure in the upper right. Many of these groups contain some members that are no longer photosynthetic. Some retain plastids, but not chloroplasts, while others have lost plastids entirely.

Phylogeny based on plastid [20] not nucleocytoplasmic genealogy:












Land plants (Embryophyta)


Supergroup affiliationMembers Endosymbiont Summary
Cyanobacteria These algae have "primary" chloroplasts, i.e. the chloroplasts are surrounded by two membranes and probably developed through a single endosymbiotic event. The chloroplasts of red algae have chlorophylls a and c (often), and phycobilins, while those of green algae have chloroplasts with chlorophyll a and b without phycobilins. Land plants are pigmented similarly to green algae and probably developed from them, thus the Chlorophyta is a sister taxon to the plants; sometimes the Chlorophyta, the Charophyta, and land plants are grouped together as the Viridiplantae.
Excavata and Rhizaria Green algae

These groups have green chloroplasts containing chlorophylls a and b. [21] Their chloroplasts are surrounded by four and three membranes, respectively, and were probably retained from ingested green algae.

Chlorarachniophytes, which belong to the phylum Cercozoa, contain a small nucleomorph, which is a relict of the algae's nucleus.

Euglenids, which belong to the phylum Euglenozoa, live primarily in fresh water and have chloroplasts with only three membranes. The endosymbiotic green algae may have been acquired through myzocytosis rather than phagocytosis. [22]

Halvaria and Hacrobia Red algae

These groups have chloroplasts containing chlorophylls a and c, and phycobilins. The shape can vary; they may be of discoid, plate-like, reticulate, cup-shaped, spiral, or ribbon shaped. They have one or more pyrenoids to preserve protein and starch. The latter chlorophyll type is not known from any prokaryotes or primary chloroplasts, but genetic similarities with red algae suggest a relationship there. [23]

In the first three of these groups (Chromista), the chloroplast has four membranes, retaining a nucleomorph in cryptomonads, and they likely share a common pigmented ancestor, although other evidence casts doubt on whether the heterokonts, Haptophyta, and cryptomonads are in fact more closely related to each other than to other groups. [24] [25]

The typical dinoflagellate chloroplast has three membranes, but considerable diversity exists in chloroplasts within the group, and a number of endosymbiotic events apparently occurred. [7] The Apicomplexa, a group of closely related parasites, also have plastids called apicoplasts, which are not photosynthetic, but appear to have a common origin with dinoflagellate chloroplasts. [7]

title page of Gmelin's Historia Fucorum, dated 1768 Gmelin - Historia Fucorum (Titelblatt).png
title page of Gmelin's Historia Fucorum, dated 1768

Linnaeus, in Species Plantarum (1753), [26] the starting point for modern botanical nomenclature, recognized 14 genera of algae, of which only four are currently considered among algae. [27] In Systema Naturae , Linnaeus described the genera Volvox and Corallina , and a species of Acetabularia (as Madrepora ), among the animals.

In 1768, Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin (1744–1774) published the Historia Fucorum, the first work dedicated to marine algae and the first book on marine biology to use the then new binomial nomenclature of Linnaeus. It included elaborate illustrations of seaweed and marine algae on folded leaves. [28] [29]

W. H. Harvey (1811–1866) and Lamouroux (1813) [30] were the first to divide macroscopic algae into four divisions based on their pigmentation. This is the first use of a biochemical criterion in plant systematics. Harvey's four divisions are: red algae (Rhodospermae), brown algae (Melanospermae), green algae (Chlorospermae), and Diatomaceae. [31] [32]

At this time, microscopic algae were discovered and reported by a different group of workers (e.g., O. F. Müller and Ehrenberg) studying the Infusoria (microscopic organisms). Unlike macroalgae, which were clearly viewed as plants, microalgae were frequently considered animals because they are often motile. [30] Even the nonmotile (coccoid) microalgae were sometimes merely seen as stages of the lifecycle of plants, macroalgae, or animals. [33] [34]

Although used as a taxonomic category in some pre-Darwinian classifications, e.g., Linnaeus (1753), de Jussieu (1789), Horaninow (1843), Agassiz (1859), Wilson & Cassin (1864), in further classifications, the "algae" are seen as an artificial, polyphyletic group.

Throughout the 20th century, most classifications treated the following groups as divisions or classes of algae: cyanophytes, rhodophytes, chrysophytes, xanthophytes, bacillariophytes, phaeophytes, pyrrhophytes (cryptophytes and dinophytes), euglenophytes, and chlorophytes. Later, many new groups were discovered (e.g., Bolidophyceae), and others were splintered from older groups: charophytes and glaucophytes (from chlorophytes), many heterokontophytes (e.g., synurophytes from chrysophytes, or eustigmatophytes from xanthophytes), haptophytes (from chrysophytes), and chlorarachniophytes (from xanthophytes).

With the abandonment of plant-animal dichotomous classification, most groups of algae (sometimes all) were included in Protista, later also abandoned in favour of Eukaryota. However, as a legacy of the older plant life scheme, some groups that were also treated as protozoans in the past still have duplicated classifications (see ambiregnal protists).

Some parasitic algae (e.g., the green algae Prototheca and Helicosporidium , parasites of metazoans, or Cephaleuros , parasites of plants) were originally classified as fungi, sporozoans, or protistans of incertae sedis , [35] while others (e.g., the green algae Phyllosiphon and Rhodochytrium , parasites of plants, or the red algae Pterocladiophila and Gelidiocolax mammillatus , parasites of other red algae, or the dinoflagellates Oodinium , parasites of fish) had their relationship with algae conjectured early. In other cases, some groups were originally characterized as parasitic algae (e.g., Chlorochytrium ), but later were seen as endophytic algae. [36] Some filamentous bacteria (e.g., Beggiatoa ) were originally seen as algae. Furthermore, groups like the apicomplexans are also parasites derived from ancestors that possessed plastids, but are not included in any group traditionally seen as algae.

Relationship to land plants

The first land plants probably evolved from shallow freshwater charophyte algae much like Chara almost 500 million years ago. These probably had an isomorphic alternation of generations and were probably filamentous. Fossils of isolated land plant spores suggest land plants may have been around as long as 475 million years ago. [37] [38]


The kelp forest exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium: A three-dimensional, multicellular thallus Kelp-forest-Monterey.jpg
The kelp forest exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium: A three-dimensional, multicellular thallus

A range of algal morphologies is exhibited, and convergence of features in unrelated groups is common. The only groups to exhibit three-dimensional multicellular thalli are the reds and browns, and some chlorophytes. [39] Apical growth is constrained to subsets of these groups: the florideophyte reds, various browns, and the charophytes. [39] The form of charophytes is quite different from those of reds and browns, because they have distinct nodes, separated by internode 'stems'; whorls of branches reminiscent of the horsetails occur at the nodes. [39] Conceptacles are another polyphyletic trait; they appear in the coralline algae and the Hildenbrandiales, as well as the browns. [39]

Most of the simpler algae are unicellular flagellates or amoeboids, but colonial and nonmotile forms have developed independently among several of the groups. Some of the more common organizational levels, more than one of which may occur in the lifecycle of a species, are

In three lines, even higher levels of organization have been reached, with full tissue differentiation. These are the brown algae, [40] —some of which may reach 50 m in length (kelps) [41] —the red algae, [42] and the green algae. [43] The most complex forms are found among the charophyte algae (see Charales and Charophyta), in a lineage that eventually led to the higher land plants. The innovation that defines these nonalgal plants is the presence of female reproductive organs with protective cell layers that protect the zygote and developing embryo. Hence, the land plants are referred to as the Embryophytes.


The term algal turf is commonly used but poorly defined. Algal turfs are thick, carpet-like beds of seaweed that retain sediment and compete with foundation species like corals and kelps, and they are usually less than 15 cm tall. Such a turf may consist of one or more species, and will generally cover an area in the order of a square metre or more. Some common characteristics are listed: [44]


Many algae, particularly members of the Characeae species, [45] have served as model experimental organisms to understand the mechanisms of the water permeability of membranes, osmoregulation, turgor regulation,[ clarification needed ] salt tolerance, cytoplasmic streaming, and the generation of action potentials.

Phytohormones are found not only in higher plants, but in algae, too. [46]

Symbiotic algae

Some species of algae form symbiotic relationships with other organisms. In these symbioses, the algae supply photosynthates (organic substances) to the host organism providing protection to the algal cells. The host organism derives some or all of its energy requirements from the algae. Examples are:


Rock lichens in Ireland Lichens near Clogher Head (stevefe).jpg
Rock lichens in Ireland

Lichens are defined by the International Association for Lichenology to be "an association of a fungus and a photosynthetic symbiont resulting in a stable vegetative body having a specific structure". [47] The fungi, or mycobionts, are mainly from the Ascomycota with a few from the Basidiomycota. In nature, they do not occur separate from lichens. It is unknown when they began to associate. [48] One mycobiont associates with the same phycobiont species, rarely two, from the green algae, except that alternatively, the mycobiont may associate with a species of cyanobacteria (hence "photobiont" is the more accurate term). A photobiont may be associated with many different mycobionts or may live independently; accordingly, lichens are named and classified as fungal species. [49] The association is termed a morphogenesis because the lichen has a form and capabilities not possessed by the symbiont species alone (they can be experimentally isolated). The photobiont possibly triggers otherwise latent genes in the mycobiont. [50]

Trentepohlia is an example of a common green alga genus worldwide that can grow on its own or be lichenised. Lichen thus share some of the habitat and often similar appearance with specialized species of algae ( aerophytes ) growing on exposed surfaces such as tree trunks and rocks and sometimes discoloring them.

Coral reefs

Floridian coral reef Coral Reef.jpg
Floridian coral reef

Coral reefs are accumulated from the calcareous exoskeletons of marine invertebrates of the order Scleractinia (stony corals). These animals metabolize sugar and oxygen to obtain energy for their cell-building processes, including secretion of the exoskeleton, with water and carbon dioxide as byproducts. Dinoflagellates (algal protists) are often endosymbionts in the cells of the coral-forming marine invertebrates, where they accelerate host-cell metabolism by generating sugar and oxygen immediately available through photosynthesis using incident light and the carbon dioxide produced by the host. Reef-building stony corals (hermatypic corals) require endosymbiotic algae from the genus Symbiodinium to be in a healthy condition. [51] The loss of Symbiodinium from the host is known as coral bleaching, a condition which leads to the deterioration of a reef.

Sea sponges

Endosymbiontic green algae live close to the surface of some sponges, for example, breadcrumb sponges ( Halichondria panicea ). The alga is thus protected from predators; the sponge is provided with oxygen and sugars which can account for 50 to 80% of sponge growth in some species. [52]

Life cycle

Rhodophyta, Chlorophyta, and Heterokontophyta, the three main algal divisions, have life cycles which show considerable variation and complexity. In general, an asexual phase exists where the seaweed's cells are diploid, a sexual phase where the cells are haploid, followed by fusion of the male and female gametes. Asexual reproduction permits efficient population increases, but less variation is possible. Commonly, in sexual reproduction of unicellular and colonial algae, two specialized, sexually compatible, haploid gametes make physical contact and fuse to form a zygote. To ensure a successful mating, the development and release of gametes is highly synchronized and regulated; pheromones may play a key role in these processes. [53] Sexual reproduction allows for more variation and provides the benefit of efficient recombinational repair of DNA damages during meiosis, a key stage of the sexual cycle. [54] However, sexual reproduction is more costly than asexual reproduction. [55] Meiosis has been shown to occur in many different species of algae. [56]


Algae on coastal rocks at Shihtiping in Taiwan Taiwan 2009 East Coast ShihTiPing Giant Stone Steps Algae FRD 6581.jpg
Algae on coastal rocks at Shihtiping in Taiwan

The Algal Collection of the US National Herbarium (located in the National Museum of Natural History) consists of approximately 320,500 dried specimens, which, although not exhaustive (no exhaustive collection exists), gives an idea of the order of magnitude of the number of algal species (that number remains unknown). [57] Estimates vary widely. For example, according to one standard textbook, [58] in the British Isles the UK Biodiversity Steering Group Report estimated there to be 20,000 algal species in the UK. Another checklist reports only about 5,000 species. Regarding the difference of about 15,000 species, the text concludes: "It will require many detailed field surveys before it is possible to provide a reliable estimate of the total number of species ..."

Regional and group estimates have been made, as well:

and so on, but lacking any scientific basis or reliable sources, these numbers have no more credibility than the British ones mentioned above. Most estimates also omit microscopic algae, such as phytoplankton.

The most recent estimate suggests 72,500 algal species worldwide. [64]


The distribution of algal species has been fairly well studied since the founding of phytogeography in the mid-19th century. [65] Algae spread mainly by the dispersal of spores analogously to the dispersal of Plantae by seeds and spores. This dispersal can be accomplished by air, water, or other organisms. Due to this, spores can be found in a variety of environments: fresh and marine waters, air, soil, and in or on other organisms. [65] Whether a spore is to grow into an organism depends on the combination of the species and the environmental conditions where the spore lands.

The spores of freshwater algae are dispersed mainly by running water and wind, as well as by living carriers. [65] However, not all bodies of water can carry all species of algae, as the chemical composition of certain water bodies limits the algae that can survive within them. [65] Marine spores are often spread by ocean currents. Ocean water presents many vastly different habitats based on temperature and nutrient availability, resulting in phytogeographic zones, regions, and provinces. [66]

To some degree, the distribution of algae is subject to floristic discontinuities caused by geographical features, such as Antarctica, long distances of ocean or general land masses. It is, therefore, possible to identify species occurring by locality, such as "Pacific algae" or "North Sea algae". When they occur out of their localities, hypothesizing a transport mechanism is usually possible, such as the hulls of ships. For example, Ulva reticulata and U. fasciata travelled from the mainland to Hawaii in this manner.

Mapping is possible for select species only: "there are many valid examples of confined distribution patterns." [67] For example, Clathromorphum is an arctic genus and is not mapped far south of there. [68] However, scientists regard the overall data as insufficient due to the "difficulties of undertaking such studies." [69]


Phytoplankton, Lake Chuzenji Phytoplankton Lake Chuzenji.jpg
Phytoplankton, Lake Chūzenji

Algae are prominent in bodies of water, common in terrestrial environments, and are found in unusual environments, such as on snow and ice. Seaweeds grow mostly in shallow marine waters, under 100 m (330 ft) deep; however, some such as Navicula pennata have been recorded to a depth of 360 m (1,180 ft). [70] A type of algae, Ancylonema nordenskioeldii, was found in Greenland in areas known as the 'Dark Zone', which caused an increase in the rate of melting ice sheet. [71] Same algae was found in the Italian Alps, after pink ice appeared on parts of the Presena glacier. [72]

The various sorts of algae play significant roles in aquatic ecology. Microscopic forms that live suspended in the water column (phytoplankton) provide the food base for most marine food chains. In very high densities (algal blooms), these algae may discolor the water and outcompete, poison, or asphyxiate other life forms.

Algae can be used as indicator organisms to monitor pollution in various aquatic systems. [73] In many cases, algal metabolism is sensitive to various pollutants. Due to this, the species composition of algal populations may shift in the presence of chemical pollutants. [73] To detect these changes, algae can be sampled from the environment and maintained in laboratories with relative ease. [73]

On the basis of their habitat, algae can be categorized as: aquatic (planktonic, benthic, marine, freshwater, lentic, lotic), [74] terrestrial, aerial (subaerial), [75] lithophytic, halophytic (or euryhaline), psammon, thermophilic, cryophilic, epibiont (epiphytic, epizoic), endosymbiont (endophytic, endozoic), parasitic, calcifilic or lichenic (phycobiont). [76]

Cultural associations

In classical Chinese, the word is used both for "algae" and (in the modest tradition of the imperial scholars) for "literary talent". The third island in Kunming Lake beside the Summer Palace in Beijing is known as the Zaojian Tang Dao (藻鑒堂島), which thus simultaneously means "Island of the Algae-Viewing Hall" and "Island of the Hall for Reflecting on Literary Talent".


Algaculture is a form of aquaculture involving the farming of species of algae. [77]

The majority of algae that are intentionally cultivated fall into the category of microalgae (also referred to as phytoplankton, microphytes, or planktonic algae). Macroalgae, commonly known as seaweed, also have many commercial and industrial uses, but due to their size and the specific requirements of the environment in which they need to grow, they do not lend themselves as readily to cultivation (this may change, however, with the advent of newer seaweed cultivators, which are basically algae scrubbers using upflowing air bubbles in small containers).[ citation needed ]

Commercial and industrial algae cultivation has numerous uses, including production of nutraceuticals such as omega-3 fatty acids (as algal oil) [78] [79] [80] or natural food colorants and dyes, food, fertilizers, bioplastics, chemical feedstock (raw material), protein-rich animal/aquaculture feed, pharmaceuticals, and algal fuel, [81] and can also be used as a means of pollution control and natural carbon sequestration. [82]

Global production of farmed aquatic plants, overwhelmingly dominated by seaweeds, grew in output volume from 13.5 million tonnes in 1995 to just over 30 million tonnes in 2016. [83] Cultured microalgae already contribute to a wide range of sectors in the emerging bioeconomy. [84] Research suggests there are large potentials and benefits of algaculture for the development of a future healthy and sustainable food system. [85] [82]

Seaweed farming

Underwater Eucheuma farming in the Philippines Eucheuma farming, Philippines (5211726476).jpg
Underwater Eucheuma farming in the Philippines
A seaweed farmer in Nusa Lembongan (Indonesia) gathers edible seaweed that has grown on a rope. Seaweed farming -Nusa Lembongan, Bali-16Aug2009 edit.jpg
A seaweed farmer in Nusa Lembongan (Indonesia) gathers edible seaweed that has grown on a rope.

Seaweed farming or kelp farming is the practice of cultivating and harvesting seaweed. In its simplest form, farmers gather from natural beds. Alternatively, farmers fully control the crop's life cycle.

The seven most cultivated taxa are Eucheuma spp., Kappaphycus alvarezii , Gracilaria spp., Saccharina japonica , Undaria pinnatifida , Pyropia spp., and Sargassum fusiforme . Eucheuma and K. alvarezii are attractive for carrageenan (a gelling agent); Gracilaria is farmed for agar; the rest are farmed for food. [86] Seaweeds are different from mangroves and seagrasses, as they are photosynthetic algal organisms [87] and are non-flowering. [86]

The largest seaweed-producing countries are China, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Other notable producers include South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Malaysia, and Zanzibar (Tanzania). [88] Seaweed farming has frequently been developed to improve economic conditions and to reduce fishing pressure. [89]

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), reported that world production in 2019 was over 35 million tonnes. North America produced some 23,000 tonnes of wet seaweed. Alaska, Maine, France, and Norway each more than doubled their seaweed production since 2018. As of 2019, seaweed represented 30% of marine aquaculture. [90]

Seaweed farming is a carbon negative crop, with a high potential for climate change mitigation. [91] [92] The IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate recommends "further research attention" as a mitigation tactic. [93] World Wildlife Fund, Oceans 2050, and The Nature Conservancy publicly support expanded seaweed cultivation. [90]


A close up of microalgae - Pavlova sp. CSIRO ScienceImage 7604 Microalgae.jpg
A close up of microalgae – Pavlova sp.
An algae bioreactor is used for cultivating micro or macro algae. Algae may be cultivated for the purposes of biomass production (as in a seaweed cultivator), wastewater treatment, CO2 fixation, or aquarium/pond filtration in the form of an algae scrubber. [94] Algae bioreactors vary widely in design, falling broadly into two categories: open reactors and enclosed reactors. Open reactors are exposed to the atmosphere while enclosed reactors, also commonly called photobioreactors, are isolated to varying extents from the atmosphere. Specifically, algae bioreactors can be used to produce fuels such as biodiesel and bioethanol, to generate animal feed, or to reduce pollutants such as NOx and CO2 in flue gases of power plants. Fundamentally, this kind of bioreactor is based on the photosynthetic reaction, which is performed by the chlorophyll-containing algae itself using dissolved carbon dioxide and sunlight energy. The carbon dioxide is dispersed into the reactor fluid to make it accessible for the algae. The bioreactor has to be made out of transparent material.


Harvesting algae Algae Harvester.jpg
Harvesting algae


Agar, a gelatinous substance derived from red algae, has a number of commercial uses. [95] It is a good medium on which to grow bacteria and fungi, as most microorganisms cannot digest agar.


Alginic acid, or alginate, is extracted from brown algae. Its uses range from gelling agents in food, to medical dressings. Alginic acid also has been used in the field of biotechnology as a biocompatible medium for cell encapsulation and cell immobilization. Molecular cuisine is also a user of the substance for its gelling properties, by which it becomes a delivery vehicle for flavours.

Between 100,000 and 170,000 wet tons of Macrocystis are harvested annually in New Mexico for alginate extraction and abalone feed. [96] [97]

Energy source

To be competitive and independent from fluctuating support from (local) policy on the long run, biofuels should equal or beat the cost level of fossil fuels. Here, algae-based fuels hold great promise, [98] [99] directly related to the potential to produce more biomass per unit area in a year than any other form of biomass. The break-even point for algae-based biofuels is estimated to occur by 2025. [100]


Seaweed-fertilized gardens on Inisheer Inisheer landscape.jpg
Seaweed-fertilized gardens on Inisheer

For centuries, seaweed has been used as a fertilizer; George Owen of Henllys writing in the 16th century referring to drift weed in South Wales: [101]

This kind of ore they often gather and lay on great heapes, where it heteth and rotteth, and will have a strong and loathsome smell; when being so rotten they cast on the land, as they do their muck, and thereof springeth good corn, especially barley ... After spring-tydes or great rigs of the sea, they fetch it in sacks on horse backes, and carie the same three, four, or five miles, and cast it on the lande, which doth very much better the ground for corn and grass.

Today, algae are used by humans in many ways; for example, as fertilizers, soil conditioners, and livestock feed. [102] Aquatic and microscopic species are cultured in clear tanks or ponds and are either harvested or used to treat effluents pumped through the ponds. Algaculture on a large scale is an important type of aquaculture in some places. Maerl is commonly used as a soil conditioner.


Dulse, a type of edible seaweed Dulse.JPG
Dulse, a type of edible seaweed

Naturally growing seaweeds are an important source of food, especially in Asia, leading some to label them as superfoods. [103] They provide many vitamins including: A, B1, B2, B6, niacin, and C, and are rich in iodine, potassium, iron, magnesium, and calcium. [104] In addition, commercially cultivated microalgae, including both algae and cyanobacteria, are marketed as nutritional supplements, such as spirulina, [105] Chlorella and the vitamin-C supplement from Dunaliella , high in beta-carotene.

Algae are national foods of many nations: China consumes more than 70 species, including fat choy , a cyanobacterium considered a vegetable; Japan, over 20 species such as nori and aonori ; [106] Ireland, dulse; Chile, cochayuyo. [107] Laver is used to make laver bread in Wales, where it is known as bara lawr; in Korea, gim . It is also used along the west coast of North America from California to British Columbia, in Hawaii and by the Māori of New Zealand. Sea lettuce and badderlocks are salad ingredients in Scotland, Ireland, Greenland, and Iceland. Algae is being considered a potential solution for world hunger problem. [108] [109] [110]

Two popular forms of algae are used in cuisine:

Furthermore, it contains all nine of the essential amino acids the body does not produce on its own [111]

The oils from some algae have high levels of unsaturated fatty acids. For example, Parietochloris incisa is very high in arachidonic acid, where it reaches up to 47% of the triglyceride pool. [113] Some varieties of algae favored by vegetarianism and veganism contain the long-chain, essential omega-3 fatty acids, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Fish oil contains the omega-3 fatty acids, but the original source is algae (microalgae in particular), which are eaten by marine life such as copepods and are passed up the food chain. [114] Algae have emerged in recent years as a popular source of omega-3 fatty acids for vegetarians who cannot get long-chain EPA and DHA from other vegetarian sources such as flaxseed oil, which only contains the short-chain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).

Pollution control

Agricultural Research Service scientists found that 60–90% of nitrogen runoff and 70–100% of phosphorus runoff can be captured from manure effluents using a horizontal algae scrubber, also called an algal turf scrubber (ATS). Scientists developed the ATS, which consists of shallow, 100-foot raceways of nylon netting where algae colonies can form, and studied its efficacy for three years. They found that algae can readily be used to reduce the nutrient runoff from agricultural fields and increase the quality of water flowing into rivers, streams, and oceans. Researchers collected and dried the nutrient-rich algae from the ATS and studied its potential as an organic fertilizer. They found that cucumber and corn seedlings grew just as well using ATS organic fertilizer as they did with commercial fertilizers. [120] Algae scrubbers, using bubbling upflow or vertical waterfall versions, are now also being used to filter aquaria and ponds.


Various polymers can be created from algae, which can be especially useful in the creation of bioplastics. These include hybrid plastics, cellulose-based plastics, poly-lactic acid, and bio-polyethylene. [121] Several companies have begun to produce algae polymers commercially, including for use in flip-flops [122] and in surf boards. [123]


The alga Stichococcus bacillaris has been seen to colonize silicone resins used at archaeological sites; biodegrading the synthetic substance. [124]


The natural pigments (carotenoids and chlorophylls) produced by algae can be used as alternatives to chemical dyes and coloring agents. [125] The presence of some individual algal pigments, together with specific pigment concentration ratios, are taxon-specific: analysis of their concentrations with various analytical methods, particularly high-performance liquid chromatography, can therefore offer deep insight into the taxonomic composition and relative abundance of natural algae populations in sea water samples. [126] [127]

Stabilizing substances

Carrageenan, from the red alga Chondrus crispus, is used as a stabilizer in milk products.

Additional images

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chloroplast</span> Plant organelle that conducts photosynthesis

A chloroplast is a type of membrane-bound organelle known as a plastid that conducts photosynthesis mostly in plant and algal cells. The photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll captures the energy from sunlight, converts it, and stores it in the energy-storage molecules ATP and NADPH while freeing oxygen from water in the cells. The ATP and NADPH is then used to make organic molecules from carbon dioxide in a process known as the Calvin cycle. Chloroplasts carry out a number of other functions, including fatty acid synthesis, amino acid synthesis, and the immune response in plants. The number of chloroplasts per cell varies from one, in unicellular algae, up to 100 in plants like Arabidopsis and wheat.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chlorophyta</span> Phylum of green algae

Chlorophyta or Prasinophyta is a taxon of green algae informally called chlorophytes. The name is used in two very different senses, so care is needed to determine the use by a particular author. In older classification systems, it refers to a highly paraphyletic group of all the green algae within the green plants (Viridiplantae) and thus includes about 7,000 species of mostly aquatic photosynthetic eukaryotic organisms. In newer classifications, it refers to the sister clade of the streptophytes/charophytes. The clade Streptophyta consists of the Charophyta in which the Embryophyta emerged. In this latter sense the Chlorophyta includes only about 4,300 species. About 90% of all known species live in freshwater. Like the land plants, green algae contain chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b and store food as starch in their plastids.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stramenopile</span> Clade of eukaryotes

The Stramenopiles, also called Heterokonts, are a clade of organisms distinguished by the presence of stiff tripartite external hairs. In most species, the hairs are attached to flagella, in some they are attached to other areas of the cellular surface, and in some they have been secondarily lost. Stramenopiles represent one of the three major clades in the SAR supergroup, along with Alveolata and Rhizaria.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cyanobacteria</span> Phylum of photosynthesising prokaryotes

Cyanobacteria, also known as Cyanophyta, are a phylum of gram-negative bacteria that obtain energy via photosynthesis. The name cyanobacteria refers to their color, which similarly forms the basis of cyanobacteria's common name, blue-green algae, although they are not usually scientifically classified as algae. They appear to have originated in a freshwater or terrestrial environment. Sericytochromatia, the proposed name of the paraphyletic and most basal group, is the ancestor of both the non-photosynthetic group Melainabacteria and the photosynthetic cyanobacteria, also called Oxyphotobacteria.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Plastid</span> Plant cell organelles that perform photosynthesis and store starch

The plastid is a membrane-bound organelle found in the cells of plants, algae, and some other eukaryotic organisms. They are considered to be intracellular endosymbiotic cyanobacteria. Examples include chloroplasts, chromoplasts, and leucoplasts.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lichen</span> Symbiosis of fungi with algae or cyanobacteria

A lichen is a composite organism that arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi species in a mutualistic relationship. Lichens are important actors in nutrient cycling and act as producers which many higher trophic feeders feed off of, such as reindeer, gastropods, nematodes, mites, and springtails. Lichens have properties different from those of their component organisms. They come in many colors, sizes, and forms and are sometimes plant-like, but are not plants. They may have tiny, leafless branches (fruticose); flat leaf-like structures (foliose); grow crust-like, adhering tightly to a surface (substrate) like a thick coat of paint (crustose); have a powder-like appearance (leprose); or other growth forms.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Brown algae</span> Large group of multicellular algae, comprising the class Phaeophyceae

Brown algae, comprising the class Phaeophyceae, are a large group of multicellular algae, including many seaweeds located in colder waters within the Northern Hemisphere. Brown algae are the major seaweeds of the temperate and polar regions. They are dominant on rocky shores throughout cooler areas of the world. Most brown algae live in marine environments, where they play an important role both as food and as a potential habitat. For instance, Macrocystis, a kelp of the order Laminariales, may reach 60 m (200 ft) in length and forms prominent underwater kelp forests. Kelp forests like these contain a high level of biodiversity. Another example is Sargassum, which creates unique floating mats of seaweed in the tropical waters of the Sargasso Sea that serve as the habitats for many species. Many brown algae, such as members of the order Fucales, commonly grow along rocky seashores. Some members of the class, such as kelps, are used by humans as food.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Green algae</span> Paraphyletic group of autotrophic eukaryotes in the clade Archaeplastida

The green algae are a group consisting of the Prasinodermophyta and its unnamed sister which contains the Chlorophyta and Charophyta/Streptophyta. The land plants (Embryophytes) have emerged deep in the Charophyte alga as sister of the Zygnematophyceae. Since the realization that the Embryophytes emerged within the green algae, some authors are starting to include them. The completed clade that includes both green algae and embryophytes is monophyletic and is referred to as the clade Viridiplantae and as the kingdom Plantae. The green algae include unicellular and colonial flagellates, most with two flagella per cell, as well as various colonial, coccoid and filamentous forms, and macroscopic, multicellular seaweeds. There are about 22,000 species of green algae. Many species live most of their lives as single cells, while other species form coenobia (colonies), long filaments, or highly differentiated macroscopic seaweeds.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Microalgae</span> Microscopic algae

Microalgae or microphytes are microscopic algae invisible to the naked eye. They are phytoplankton typically found in freshwater and marine systems, living in both the water column and sediment. They are unicellular species which exist individually, or in chains or groups. Depending on the species, their sizes can range from a few micrometers (μm) to a few hundred micrometers. Unlike higher plants, microalgae do not have roots, stems, or leaves. They are specially adapted to an environment dominated by viscous forces.

Hatena arenicola is a species of single-celled eukaryotes discovered in 2000, and first reported in 2005. It was discovered by Japanese biologists Noriko Okamoto and Isao Inouye at the University of Tsukuba, and they gave the scientific description and formal name in 2006. The species is a flagellate, and can resemble a plant at one stage of its life, in which it carries a photosynthesizing alga inside itself, or an animal, acting as predator in another stage of its life. Researchers believe that this organism is in the process of secondary endosymbiosis, in which one organism is incorporated into another, resulting in a completely new life form.

Algaculture is a form of aquaculture involving the farming of species of algae.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Archaeplastida</span> Clade of eukaryotes containing land plants and some algae

The Archaeplastida are a major group of eukaryotes, comprising the photoautotrophic red algae (Rhodophyta), green algae, land plants, and the minor group glaucophytes. It also includes the non-photosynthetic lineage Rhodelphidia, a predatorial (eukaryotrophic) flagellate that is sister to the Rhodophyta, and probably the microscopic picozoans. The Archaeplastida have chloroplasts that are surrounded by two membranes, suggesting that they were acquired directly through a single endosymbiosis event by feeding on a cyanobacterium. All other groups which have chloroplasts, besides the amoeboid genus Paulinella, have chloroplasts surrounded by three or four membranes, suggesting they were acquired secondarily from red or green algae. Unlike red and green algae, glaucophytes have never been involved in secondary endosymbiosis events.

<i>Trebouxia</i> Genus of algae

Trebouxia is a unicellular green alga. It is a photosynthetic organism that can exist in almost all habitats found in polar, tropical, and temperate regions. It can either exist in a symbiotic relationship with fungi in the form of lichen or it can survive independently as a free-living organism alone or in colonies. Trebouxia is the most common photobiont in extant lichens. It is a primary producer of marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems. It uses carotenoids and chlorophyll a and b to harvest energy from the sun and provide nutrients to various animals and insects.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Algae fuel</span> Use of algae as a source of energy rich oils

Algae fuel, algal biofuel, or algal oil is an alternative to liquid fossil fuels that uses algae as its source of energy-rich oils. Also, algae fuels are an alternative to commonly known biofuel sources, such as corn and sugarcane. When made from seaweed (macroalgae) it can be known as seaweed fuel or seaweed oil.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Red algae</span> Division of archaeplastids

Red algae, or Rhodophyta, are one of the oldest groups of eukaryotic algae. The Rhodophyta comprises one of the largest phyla of algae, containing over 7,000 currently recognized species with taxonomic revisions ongoing. The majority of species (6,793) are found in the Florideophyceae (class), and mostly consist of multicellular, marine algae, including many notable seaweeds. Red algae are abundant in marine habitats but relatively rare in freshwaters. Approximately 5% of red algae species occur in freshwater environments, with greater concentrations found in warmer areas. Except for two coastal cave dwelling species in the asexual class Cyanidiophyceae, there are no terrestrial species, which may be due to an evolutionary bottleneck in which the last common ancestor lost about 25% of its core genes and much of its evolutionary plasticity.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Phlorotannin</span> Class of chemical compounds

Phlorotannins are a type of tannins found in brown algae such as kelps and rockweeds or sargassacean species, and in a lower amount also in some red algae. Contrary to hydrolysable or condensed tannins, these compounds are oligomers of phloroglucinol (polyphloroglucinols). As they are called tannins, they have the ability to precipitate proteins. It has been noticed that some phlorotannins have the ability to oxidize and form covalent bonds with some proteins. In contrast, under similar experimental conditions three types of terrestrial tannins apparently did not form covalent complexes with proteins.

<i>Nannochloropsis</i> and biofuels

Nannochloropsis is a genus of alga within the heterokont line of eukaryotes, that is being investigated for biofuel production. One marine Nannochloropsis species has been shown to be suitable for algal biofuel production due to its ease of growth and high oil content, mainly unsaturated fatty acids and a significant percentage of palmitic acid. It also contains enough unsaturated fatty acid linolenic acid and polyunsaturated acid for a quality biodiesel.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Culture of microalgae in hatcheries</span>

Microalgae or microscopic algae grow in either marine or freshwater systems. They are primary producers in the oceans that convert water and carbon dioxide to biomass and oxygen in the presence of sunlight.

Sammy Boussiba is a professor emeritus at the French Associates Institute for Agriculture and Biotechnology of Drylands at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marine primary production</span>

Marine primary production is the chemical synthesis in the ocean of organic compounds from atmospheric or dissolved carbon dioxide. It principally occurs through the process of photosynthesis, which uses light as its source of energy, but it also occurs through chemosynthesis, which uses the oxidation or reduction of inorganic chemical compounds as its source of energy. Almost all life on Earth relies directly or indirectly on primary production. The organisms responsible for primary production are called primary producers or autotrophs.


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Britain and Ireland

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Faroe Islands

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Canary Islands

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South Africa

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North America