Algae are Biofactories / by Bryan Bishe

 Image credit: Esther Wang

Image credit: Esther Wang

I research algae. When most people think about the word “algae,” it’s usually associated with pond scum, the green crud you scrape out of your fish tank, or harmful blooms in lakes or oceans. It’s a bit hard to get people excited about. So here’s another way to think about algae: algae are tiny little biological factories. These biofactories can be harnessed to address challenges from global warming to vaccine delivery and represent a renewable substitute for fossil fuels and petroleum-derived products.

Algae are a versatile, customizable, and sun-powered biotechnology platform useable a variety useful tasks. They can reduce greenhouse gases by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into oxygen through photosynthesis. Estimates vary, but 50-60% of photosynthesis on Earth is thought to be carried out by ocean algae. Many algae strains are edible by humans, and store captured carbon as useful sugars, proteins, and fats. All phytoplankton (a fancy word for micro algae) are edible by something, so they make up the base of the food chain. They’re the primary producers that everything else eats in turn, assembling complex nutritional molecules. Those healthy omega-3s you get from eating seafood? They were originally produced by algae and passed up through the food chain.

Algae bio-factories are one of the most promising alternatives to petroleum, able to create a wide variety of the complex compounds we need to create a new generation of renewable products.

Fossilized algae, buried underground for millions of years, turns into oil. And we use oil for more than just fuel; petroleum products from asphalt to plastic started life as microscopic algae long ago. If we’re going to find a way to stop using oil, we’re going to have to find new ways to make petroleum-based products. Algae bio-factories are one of the most promising alternatives to petroleum, able to create a wide variety of the complex compounds we need to create a new generation of renewable products.

Algae is going to be the most transformational technology for addressing the challenges of the 21st century. Algae bio-factories sit at the center of efforts to reduce greenhouse gases, develop more sustainable agriculture, and create renewable alternatives to fossil fuels.

Check out these cool things being done with algae!

Algae and forestry help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Algae scrubs automotive pollution from the air.

There's a company making surfboards out of algae!

Algae bioplastics for 3D printing.

Algae for oral vaccine delivery.