by Mark Edwards
lgae evolved in so many different competitive environments that the organisms built incredibly sophisticated defensive shields. Imagine each algae cell trying to survive and grow surrounded by a milieu of predators trying to eat it and trillions of bacteria, viruses, molds and other microorganisms trying to use it as a host. Algae had to figure out how to become inhospitable to all the infective agents. As a result of eons of natural evolution, algae contain more valuable medical bioactive compounds than any other plant.
Algae growing on a pond may look tranquil, (above). The algae provide lots of oxygen and great food for ducks and other aquatic life. Under the surface, the teaming microorganisms fight millions of pitched battles for survival. Hungry predators attack, parasitoids and viruses search for hosts. Millions of microbes fortify their defense.
Algae contain many bioactive substances like polysaccharides, proteins, lipids and polyphenols. Bioactive compounds include antibacterial, antiviral, anticancer and antifungal properties, as well as many others. These miracle compounds not only improve algae’s own defenses but pass those capabilities on to the animal or plant that consumes algae.
Algae form unicellular, colonies, filamentous groups and multicellular communities, such as sea vegetables, that can grow to 90 meters. Seaweeds or sea vegetables are macroalgae that make up about 10% of all algae species. Sea vegetables have pseudo stems and leaves that are tough enough to absorb the pounding of the surf. Similar to microalgae, macroalgae have no circulatory or digestive system, and no roots. Some species have a tiny holdfast, to anchor them to rocks, and protect them from raging tides and surf.
Giant kelp is harvested as a source of algin, an emulsifying and binding agent used in the production of many foods and cosmetics, like ice cream, toothpaste and cereals. More than 95% of global sea vegetable production, (approximately 21 million metric tons a year) is farmed.
Monterey Bay Aquarium studies demonstrate that the majestic giant California kelp forest, (above), grows faster than tropical bamboo, 10 to 12 inches a day in natural stands. Under good cultivation, giant kelp can grow up to two feet each day.
Production occurs primarily in the Asian Pacific rim. Sea vegetable compounds today improve thousands of human food products, especially ingredients such as agar-agar, carrageenan and alginates. Sea vegetable phytochemical compounds are extensively used in food, textiles, dairy, paper industry and confectionary. Sea vegetable extracts are an important component of biostimulants known for their richness in polysaccharide, minerals and vitamins. Phycologists are studying and cultivating sea vegetables for food, feed, nutraceuticals, cosmeceuticals, medicines and other valuable bioproducts. They provide a source of dietary minerals such as sodium, potassium, iodine, as well as fiber. Sea vegetable supplementation has gained popularity to improve the taste, color and texture of foods.
Sodium alginate from sea vegetables is used in culinary physics, or molecular gastronomy, at some of the best restaurants in the world. Molecular gastronomy investigates the physical and chemical ingredient transformations that occur while cooking. The study includes the social, artistic and technical components of culinary and gastronomic phenomena such as spherification of juices and other liquids. Sodium alginate is combined with calcium lactate to create spheres of liquid surrounded by a thin jelly membrane. High-end restaurants present these spheres with different internal liquids for cocktails, appetizers, side dishes and desserts.
The path forward
Can Ana feed our world by 2040? Transforming food production from unsustainable to sustainable will require some heavy lifting. The bio-machine that makes this revolution possible is so tiny, it cannot be seen with the naked eye. These tiny single-celled organisms have evolved to mighty, thanks to the eons of advancement by single-celled organisms.
Possibly their signature skill may save mankind from wars, pestilence and hunger. Algae are endowed with a miraculous ability found in no other plant — to recover and recycle nutrients.