Here’s a mind-blowing fact: microalgae produce most of the oxygen we breathe today. Whaa!? And even though they are billions of years old, they are still around, alive and kicking! These single-cell organisms are the ancestors of all plants and form the basis of the aquatic food chain. They are the inventors of photosynthesis and produce some of the most important nutrients the human body needs, including marine omega-3 essential fatty acids. So why are more people not crazy about these tiny water plants?
EATING SUNSHINE, CREATING ENERGY
Microalgae actually invented photosynthesis – the ability to transform sunlight, water and carbon dioxide into energy. This skill is part of every living plant’s powers today, and it is what allows plants to create energy: they absorb sunlight, water and carbon dioxide and turn it into the energy they need to live, grow and prosper. Land-based plants use that energy to grow branches, leaves, root systems, flowers and seeds. A lot of energy is required for being a plant like the pineapple or the Rhododendron. Or the majestic Redwood tree.
For our tiny microalgae friends, the story is a bit different. Being one-celled plants, they grow by dividing – that is, turning themselves into two new one-celled organisms. There are no branches, roots, or leaves involved. So, what do microalgae do with all the energy they produce? The answer is that they use that energy to create nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, beta-carotene, chlorophyll, astaxanthin and many more. What's more, as it turns out, microalgae got so good at this process that other living organisms, animals and humans decided to simply “source” these nutrients and get these essentials through their diets. Yup, we all need to consume omega-3, just like we need to get Vitamin C and iron in our diets.
OXYGEN BY NUMBERS
So, what is the byproduct of this photosynthesis-business, you may ask? Take a deep breath and send some love to microalgae for giving us oxygen. One could say that the job of algae, and other photosynthesizers, is to eat sunshine, water and carbon dioxide and then perspire oxygen. And they do! You know how the Amazon Rainforest is called the “lungs of the Earth”? Think again! Scientists estimate that 50-85 percent of the oxygen in our atmosphere comes from our oceans. It’s a tricky thing to calculate exactly how much phytoplankton aka. microalgae there is available – there can be thousands of these microscopic water plants in a single drop of water. According to Brenda María Soler-Figueroa, a marine biologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, at least 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe comes from algae.