by Mark Edwards
iny Mighty Al shares the story of how this 3.5-billion-year-old single-celled alga saved our planet not once, but twice. First, Al ate the predominately CO2 atmosphere and burped enough O2 to support life on earth. After supplying the oxygen, our planet lacked food. Al became the favored food for every plant and animal. Algae became the #1 snack for dinosaurs and all their relatives. They in turn, fossilized into coal and oil. What was algae to do, faced with a world where everyone around them was a predator?
Algae created a brilliant strategy. The tiny plant learned to grow faster than its predators could eat. Although human history is very short compared with algae, no humans have employed a smarter survival strategy. In fact, nearly every military strategy throughout recorded history can be found in algae behavior on offense as predators or on defense, as the hunted. Algae have invested 3.5 billion years of evolutionary opportunity to develop very clever survival strategies.
Algae’s history provides fascinating insight. Algae evolved in ancient oceans, estuaries and puddles where extreme electrical storms, temperature spikes and drought were common occurrences. When conditions were good, early algae thrived. When the local ecosystem became unstable, algae learned to go dormant.
Algae are extremely adaptable because they either adapted to the hostile conditions they encountered on early earth or they died. Algae did adapt and found a home in nearly every niche microclimate on earth. Algae can be found thriving in crusts and lichens on the hottest deserts, in and around active volcanoes, and in the boiling water of geothermal geysers. Algae grow under the polar ice caps, on and in mountaintop glaciers and they ride on ocean icebergs.
Our ancestor’s attraction for the sweet taste of algae may have played a significant role in our becoming human. Strategically placed evidence on our tongue provides a fascinating clue that science has so far missed. Our pre-human ancestors made a significant, possibly accidental decision to ingest algae. Algae nutrients, especially long-chained fatty acids, omega-3s, may have led to the evolution our large brain and enabled Homo sapiens to evolve, thrive and rise to the top of the food chain.
Brain enlargement differentiates Homo sapiens from our ancestors. Our pre-human ancestors evolved from chimpanzees around 8 million years ago (mya) but very little happened to the brain for the first 6 million years. About 2 mya, brain enlargement began and by 1.5 mya, the humanoid brain was three times the size of chimpanzees. What happened to our ancestors during this half a million years of evolution? Humanoids survived their first million years with larger brains before cooking fires or hunting weapons were invented.
Rather than moving up the food chain to hunt and eat game meat, early hominids’ first step may instead have been down the food chain where they ingested algae in their drinking water. A hominoid tribe on the lee side of an algae lake may have ingested several grams of algae daily in their drinking water, similar to the algae matt on the left. These few grams of algae would have acted as a natural food supplement to supply the essential nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants, especially omega-3s that provided the green spark for brain enlargement. Proof for this theory lies on the human tongue, which has specialized taste bud receptors for a fifth taste — umami. Umami is a savory flavor constituent found in some protein-rich foods, especially algae.
Algae provided our ancestors with the original convenience food. Terrestrial foods were dry, hard, bitter and starchy. Land plants were difficult and risky to gather. Stealth predators were better at stealth than our ancestors were at gathering. Algae offered a fresh, soft, delicious sweet taste that was unavailable in land-based foods.
Early humans probably rubbed algae oil on their skin for sun protection. Algae add moisture and speeds the recovery from wounds, burns and bruises. Algae’s high antioxidant activity protects the skin from inflammatory reactions and sun damage. Pacific Rim societies have used algae for natural foods and remedies for centuries because they are effective. Organic chemists, biologists, and scientists are developing new anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-cancer medicines from algae.
As early humans migrated out of Africa, they followed coastlines where sea vegetables were plentiful. At low tide, hominids could harvest algae easily and dry it quickly in the sun. Algae foods and algae eaters – water plants, fish and reptiles – in local aquatic ecosystems were easily accessible. In many locations, algae were harvestable year-round, which would have been a tremendous advantage when terrestrial crops were dormant. Dried algae were light and probably served as the first wampum in trade, because it was easily transportable. Algae wampum offered a side benefit; a hungry trader could eat the product.
Algae may have an appealing Biblical history too. Algae101 posts suggest that the “manna” of the wandering Israelites in the Bible may have been spirulina and lichen, an alga-fungi symbiant. The product appeared miraculously each morning on rocks with the dew, where it was harvested by the women. Women made a flour and cooked flatbread. Manna was described as tasting “like wafers made with honey.” This is consistent with the taste of spirulina scraped off hot rocks, that have cooled. (see image right).
The Aztecs for food, medicine, trade and religious ceremonies. Indigenous people along coastlines or lakes have harvested natural stands of algae for millennia for use as food, feed, medicines and trade. Algae probably protected our ancestors against many diseases including scurvy, goiter, xerophthalmia, (blindness from vitamin A deficiency), arthritis, diabetes, mental retardation and others. Many indigenous societies have used algae for medical purposes for centuries because these natural remedies were safe and effective.
Algae’s history contains many fascinating elements, but algae’s future promises to be even more captivating.
Abundance growing methods leverage an array of elements from algae’s growth strategy, especially direct nutrient absorption and growth speed. Direct nutrient absorption allows abundance growing methods to recover and repurpose nutrients from air, water and even solid waste streams. Of course, the solids need to be pulverized before algae can absorb the nutrients. Fast growth allows abundance farmers to grow high nutralent foods substantially faster than industrial agriculture methods.